USOPC to educate athletes on global issues ahead of Beijing Games

The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee says it will prioritise educating its athletes on global issues ahead of the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

The flags of China and the Olympics are seen being raised before the flame handover ceremony in Athens for the Winter Olympics. - REUTERS

The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) said on Tuesday it will prioritise educating its athletes on global issues ahead of the 2022 Beijing Olympics where some could enter the debate about China's human rights record.

The USOPC said its athletes are encouraged to support the values of the Olympic movement, which include non-discrimination and equality for all, and it is not unexpected that some would feel strongly about issues in the world that may impact that.

USOPC Chair Susanne Lyons, speaking on the final day of the virtual Team USA media summit, said the Beijing Olympics will offer a chance for sport to speak for unity, global peace and for the rights of people around the world.

"We really have no opportunity, since we are not a government, to influence the activities of another country's rules and regulations and treatment of the people within their own country," said Lyons.

"But certainly our athletes will have points of view about that and it is our job to ensure that they are able to express themselves but also to ensure that they are kept safe."

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Activists have urged the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to take the February 4-20 Olympics out of China given its treatment of Uighur Muslims along with other human rights concerns. China denies human rights abuses. The USOPC said it is capitalising on every chance it can to educate athletes, whether at training, via virtual town hall meetings or in person at Olympic trials.

Educating athletes is not new ground for the USOPC as the organisation also primed athletes on topical issues ahead of this year's Tokyo Olympics, which were held after a year in which social justice protests swept the globe.

"We are trying to provide information for athletes across a variety of topics and choices," USOPC Chief Executive Officer Sarah Hirshland said. "We did the same in advance of Tokyo as it related to issues of racial and social justice."

Hirshland said it was imperative to make sure athletes understand not only the platform they have but the potential risks of speaking out so they can make the best choice. "The focus here is really on how do we make sure athletes have all the information they need," said Hirshland. "That's our plan going into these Games."

Hirshland also said efforts will be made to ensure athletes understand the charters of the IOC and International Paralympic Committee (IPC). "It's important for our athletes to understand we are a guest at their Games and we are under, and agreed to abide by, the rules of those organisations," said Hirshland.

"We are absolutely making sure athletes understand the rules and laws of the country that we are going to and where those risks might be because those laws and rules are different than they are in our country."

U.S. Olympians voice concern over human rights ahead of Beijing 2022

Veteran Olympians for the United States denounced China's track record on human rights this week but stopped short of endorsing a boycott of Beijing 2022, with the Winter Games quickly approaching.

Rights groups and U.S. lawmakers have called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to postpone the 2022 Games and relocate the event unless China ends what the United States deems an ongoing genocide against Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups.

The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) said on Tuesday it would prioritise educating its athletes on global issues ahead of the Games, where some could face questions on China's human right record.

At the USOPC media summit this week, however, athletes were already part of the conversation.

"Athletes have a voice and why not use them," two-time Olympic luger Tucker West told reporters Tuesday. "Every human deserves to be treated equally with respect and dignity and fairness - you know, I'll kind of leave it at that.

"Regarding the boycott: It’s not my job to decide where the Olympics are."

Addressing China's human rights record, three-time Olympic ice dancer Evan Bates offered among the strongest denunciations.

"It's terrible - it's awful. And I don't think any athlete would be in support of that," Bates said, adding that celebrating "what the Olympic movement stands for" was important.

"I have no problem speaking for the athletes and saying that what's happening there is terrible and we're human beings too and when we read and hear about the things that are happening there, we absolutely hate that. We hate what's going on there."

The USOPC on Monday refused to be drawn into the debate, as Chief Executive Sarah Hirshland drove home a message that Olympic boycotts essentially harm athletes and do very little to impact problems in host countries.

But the topic remained front-and-center as Beijing Olympics organisers received the Olympic flame on Tuesday in Athens while human rights activists called for a boycott.

"For a greater change to occur there must be power that is beyond the Olympics. It has to be change at a remarkable scale," said figure skater Nathan Chen, who picked up a bronze medal in the team event at the Pyeongchang Games.

"However, the fact that people are talking about this issue, and the Olympics are bringing it to light is already a step in the right direction."

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