How China Is Spinning the Olympics

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S1: Henry Bushnell from over at Yahoo Sports. He is supposed to get on a plane tomorrow.

S2: I am traveling to Beijing in the words of our editors and probably a lot of other editors around the US media landscape. As of now,

S1: if he gets on this plane, Henry is going to be headed to China to cover the Olympics.

S2: Everything is to some extent tentative, but as of now, I’ll arrive Thursday morning in Beijing and the opening ceremony will be Friday and the games will begin and we’ll be there to cover them.

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S1: You say for now. Why do you say for now,

S2: because of COVID? And I’m a Korean and all of the craziness that is that is happening in the world and everything.

S1: The rules about COVID in China really don’t look very much like the rules here or even the rules in Japan during last year’s summer games. China is still trying for COVID zero. You might have heard about the Chinese woman who said she got stuck at a blind dates house for four days when the coronavirus shut down a whole neighborhood or about the pet stores in Hong Kong that were culling hamsters suspected of spreading COVID. This was all over the last few weeks, and thousands of journalists and athletes are about to touch down in this country, bringing their hometown germs with them.

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S2: I want to be pretty confident that when I get on that plane to China, I don’t have COVID. If you test positive on arrival, you’ll be stuck in a isolation facility for 10 days at minimum, and your Olympics are more or less over.

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S1: I imagine that for China, there might be other kinds of preparations too, like security preparations. I’ve heard some people talk about, Oh, I’m going to use a different phone when I’m over there. Do you think about those things too?

S2: Or we have a pretty extensive plan for cybersecurity. Not many people want to talk about it like every issue around these games, as one official put it to me, is also an international relations issue.

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S1: This is the other thing about the upcoming Olympics. Are happening in an increasingly brazen, authoritarian state. So even if he’s COVID free Henry, he’s got these other looming concerns about who’s going to be watching him and how free he’ll be to do his job.

S2: I have a temporary phone and computer going over there. I’m not going to be using my normal email. I’m not even going to be able to log into my personal Twitter account bomb. Over there. We have to create temporary accounts, burner, Twitter, all of these things because our you know, our IT folks have said, if you go to China, you assume that any device you’re bringing over there is going to be compromised.

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S1: I thought the Olympics were supposed to be fun

S2: hearing and hearing all the news. Yeah, it would be tough to see that. I’ve never been to a normal Olympics I’ve been to, I’ve been to to cover the Olympics now. They’re certainly from what I’ve heard. Significantly less fun then than the normal Olympics are

S1: today on the show. The pandemic and increasing diplomatic tensions are coming to a head just in time for the 2022 Winter Games are the second COVID Olympics on thin ice. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. The 2022 Olympics were not supposed to be in China. The International Olympic Committee, the IOC, scanned the globe for host countries seven years ago, and President Xi Jinping’s bid was considered a long shot.

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S2: You know this Beijing 2022 bid? I had somebody describe it to me as a trial balloon bid that a lot of people thought was frankly a joke. Hmm. Why? Because the favorites for these 2022 Olympics were traditional Winter Olympic cities like Oslo. There are four European cities who had either actually launched bids or had expressed interest in bidding. And then it was those four, and then it was Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan, and then for various reasons. The four European cities, each of which at some point was considered a favorite, backed out either for political reasons or the other wasn’t local support, or they were worried about just the economic risks associated with hosting the Olympics.

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S1: So suddenly, you’re left with China and Kazakhstan.

S2: Exactly. And Kazakhstan almost won the vote. The vote was 44 to 40. That’s how much reservation there was about giving the games back to Beijing 14 years after they had hosted the summer games. You know, they try to spread host cities around the around the world to different countries. And given that they had made a bunch of promises around human rights that they absolutely did not live up to. So that’s kind of the backdrop here. Nobody was expecting when that bidding process started for China to get the games, and then the IOC essentially was left with no choice.

S1: And there were all these reasons why they shouldn’t get it. Like I was reading, snow is actually not a big thing in the place where the skiing competitions are being held.

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S2: You know, the IOC warned about that when it did its bid evaluation process and said, you know, the games are going to rely one hundred percent on artificial snow. I believe it’s the first time that that will ever happen. You see some of these pictures of the mountains on which the competitions are going to be held. It’s basically a completely dry, non-white mountain. And then there’s this little sliver of white that is the snow for the downhill skiing or whatever it is.

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S1: Hmm. You say she made promises about human rights? What were those?

S2: So in 2008, the whole or back when China bid for the 2008 games, which is more like two thousand two thousand one, the whole narrative was that the games would open up China to the world and make it a more responsible global citizen. And that didn’t happen. Obviously, it’s, you know, every human rights experts say that things have gotten exponentially worse in China since then. So this time, the narrative creation strategy has been no narrative around human rights. They haven’t said that these games are going to open up China or improve human human rights in the country. Everybody from the organizers to the IOC is more or less just trying to ignore that angle of it.

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S1: It’s interesting because when you look at quotes from Olympics officials about Beijing and how happy they are with how the Olympics are going to play out there. They mostly seem super thrilled with the efficiency of the project, like it came in under budget and look, China built these high speed rail lines to get you between the Olympic villages. And it’s amazing that they basically created ski mountains and planted all these trees, so it looked pretty. And I read that and I thought, Well, yeah, I mean, that’s what you get when you’re organizing something as an authoritarian state. You can keep it under budget and you can deliver big things because there’s no one else pushing against you.

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S2: Exactly. And to some extent, that is just the standard buttering up of the organizing committee and the kind words coming from the IOC. You know, you could find versions of that before every Olympics, more or less. But on the other hand, I’m sure all the venues are going to be great. Whereas in Tokyo, there were stories of people spending five or six hours just getting through the airport upon arrival. I’ve heard that the Beijing process takes less than an hour and it’s very smooth. And you know, I’m sure the hotels will probably be better in the whole process will probably be great. In a weird way,

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S1: China is, of course, also the first country to have experienced the brunt of COVID 19. And I want to talk about how China’s dealing with hosting the games given that the pandemic is still ongoing. You alluded to all the hoops that you’re going to have to jump through just as a journalist to get to the games. What of the athletes have to go through when you speak with them, what do they tell you about how they’re trying to ensure that they stay healthy, that they’re able to compete?

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S2: Yet frankly, some of them are scared. I talked to a speed skater a couple of months ago who said that she’s ordering delivery groceries on Amazon, Whole Foods, doing curbside pick up drive throughs only, you know, if she’s going to food. And even when she goes to the drive thrus, she’s wearing two masks and she’s still scared that she’s going to get COVID. Even an asymptomatic illness can take this thing away from them that they have prepared for for four years.

S1: You know, what stood out to me when I was reading about these COVID restrictions is the fact that it seems like China actually overruled the IOC when they were negotiating over health protocols like the Olympic Committee wanted things to be a little more open than China did. And China said, No, that’s not what we’re doing here. And it stood out to me because I’ve done a number of shows about the Olympics, and I feel like I’m always doing a show talking about how the IOC is bullying its host countries and pushing them around. But here it seemed like exactly the opposite. The host country was running the Olympics

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S2: this year more than ever. That does seem like the case, and you see that in terms of, you know, the IOC not being willing to speak about human rights or not even getting questioned about whether athletes have the freedom to speak up about China’s human rights abuses and not guaranteeing that the athletes will be protected. China is just a very valuable country, very valuable market, a very valuable government to the IOC. You know, you saw ahead of the Tokyo Games, for example, this is just one of many examples, but China developed its its version of the vaccine pretty quickly and offered vaccine doses to the IOC for any Olympians that wanted them ahead of the games who couldn’t get them in their home countries. So it’s this whole political web more or less, you know, a lot of people have accused the IOC of kind of being in bed with China here. And yeah, to some extent that’s true.

S1: It is a bad luck to be in bed with China right now. The government’s repressive moves are well-documented. There have been harsh crackdowns on dissent in Hong Kong and of course, the detention of nearly two million wiggers and other Muslims in a northwestern region of China. The U.S. State Department determined last year that China’s actions amounted to genocide and that its government had been committing crimes against humanity since 2017. In recent years, the Olympics have come to be a bit of an international reputation laundry service. But longtime sports commentator Bob Costas says this year’s games are different, and he took to CNN to wag his finger at NBC. His former employer and denounce the International Olympic Committee.

S3: The IOC deserves all of the disdain and disgust that comes their way for going back to China yet again. They were in Beijing in 2008. They go to Sochi in 2014. They’re shameless about this stuff.

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S2: A lot of people are disgusted, you know, including athletes like athletes don’t want to be in this position where the narrative around the biggest event of their lives is all about all this non-sports stuff. They don’t want to be put in a position where activists are urging them to speak about China’s human rights abuses and alleged genocide.

S1: Can you tell me more about that? The Olympians, when you speak with them, how are they thinking about the human rights issues?

S2: It’s interesting because a lot of them seem very much afraid to speak up, and it’s unclear how much of that is direct instructions from people around them or if they’ve been educated on the potential consequences of speaking up. But I spoke to one snowboarder off the record several months ago now, and she basically told me, You know, look, obviously me and a lot of other athletes were not on board with what China is doing. Like we, we think all of this is very wrong, but they’re afraid to say anything about it because they don’t want anything to happen either before the games, before they get there or during them, or even as they’re as they’re trying to leave. The athletes have kind of been put in this predicament because the IOC won’t address the human rights abuses and because Olympic officials even, you know, at the top of the US, OPEC, for example, won’t address any of this. The burden has kind of fallen to the athletes, and a lot of the athletes think that’s unfair. You know, Mikaela Shiffrin had a great quote when this was in the news last year.

S1: What sport does she do?

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S2: So Mikaela Shiffrin is a top US skier, and you know, she was asked about this. I believe it was sometime last year and more or less talked about having to feel like she had to choose between supporting human rights and doing her job and competing in the Olympics. What’s real bummer is that there’s not only accusations, but

S1: like legitimate proof

S4: and a lot of these places we’ve been going the last several Olympics. I don’t want to make light of the decisions that those committees do have to make, but it’s it’s almost like a power that they have to decide where we go, and some places seem more fitting than others.

S1: When we come back muzzled athletes, tense international relations and a virus that continues to run rampant. What are these games going to look like? So what will the Olympics look like here in the United States like? I know that NBC has felt compelled to bring on people who will add some kind of nuance about human rights to their broadcast. But do you have any hints about how that’s going to look and feel for a viewer?

S2: I don’t have any hints. I will say it’s a very interesting dynamic, especially given the way we’ve seen broadcasters handle, you know, human rights conversations in the past. Because obviously, you know, NBC has this long term contract with the Olympics. They’re caught up in this web. You know, NBC will be more successful if the Olympics are successful and the Olympics will be more successful if the story isn’t all the human rights stuff, it’s the incredible athletic achievements so that I’m almost certain it’s going to be the vast majority of what NBC covers, even if the average American is maybe more interested or wants to talk about China’s human rights abuses.

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S1: It was interesting, Bob Costas, when he talked about, you know, his feelings about the Olympics being in China. One of the things he said was, even if you go in as a journalist, you are paying to broadcast the Olympics. So you’re invested, you want the Olympics to do well. And so it scrambles whatever journalistic responsibility you have

S3: your reporting on an event. But you’re also promoting the event newspapers and CNN and whatever. Other outlets don’t pay a rights fee to cover the White House or whatever they’re covering. NBC pays a huge rights fee along with the production costs. They want people to watch it. It’s a centerpiece of the entire network strategy at a

S2: time when when you pay to broadcast the game and you pay a lot of money to broadcast the games, to some extent you become part of the machine that serves to promote the games and doesn’t serve to cover them journalistically.

S1: The Biden administration has, of course, announced a diplomatic boycott of the games. What is that going to mean? Is it gonna mean anything for your job or for what the games look like?

S2: Not really. It doesn’t mean anything for the sports. It’s a political story. It’s symbolic. It’ll be perhaps a story at the opening ceremony if you watch the opening ceremony. US politicians won’t be there. Canadian politicians, British politicians won’t be there. No diplomats from those countries. Putin will be there,

S1: even though he’s not supposed to be there.

S2: Right, right. Technically, Russia is is banned from the Olympics, but there was a loophole in that ruling that allows him to be there as a personal guest of G. I guess that’s what he’s taking advantage of.

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S1: So I guess we’re seeing a lot of the limits of rules here. Why not an actual boycott?

S2: Because it harms athletes the line that a lot of people in the Olympic world use. They say that a full on boycott just uses athletes innocent athletes as political pawns. A lot of people think that the 1980 boycott

S1: the American boycott of the Moscow Games,

S2: right, exactly which was in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan like six months before those Olympics. But kind of the prevailing opinion is that that wasn’t successful and didn’t have the impact it was intended to have

S1: because Russia didn’t leave Afghanistan

S2: right for like nine other years. Now you could argue that that what it took away from Russia in terms of international prestige and legitimacy did have some sort of impact. But the bigger impact was just on the individual lives of the athletes who had put so much into making it to that event, and they just had that taken away from them. And I think that is the hesitancy of a boycott in the the US Olympic Committee and the IOC have done a very good job from an public relations perspective of getting out in front with this narrative that full on boycotts don’t work. And so I don’t think that was ever seriously considered this time around.

S1: The thing I think is interesting about the Olympics is that, of course, people will be watching sports happen live and you don’t know the thrill of it is that you have no idea what’s going to happen next, which leaves this opening. And you say some athletes have expressed discomfort with competing in Beijing. I wonder if you think. We might see anything that surprises us once the athletes have the cameras firmly on them. People stepping up and expressing how they feel about being made to compete in a place that maybe makes them feel uncomfortable.

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S2: I think there’s a chance, I think there’s a chance.

S1: If athletes spoke out, do you think whatever they said or did would be broadcast by NBC?

S2: I think so. I think if it became a big enough story, it would be. I don’t think NBC would go out of their way to make it a big story, which is one of the issues some people only experience the Olympics through NBC, as opposed to reading Yahoo Sports or reading other media outlets, for example. That’s why the narrative of the games as a nonpolitical event can persist. But I think if enough people got talking about something an athlete said or if it was a prominent enough athlete, then I think it would be pretty difficult to avoid.

S1: Here’s something I don’t get. It seems like the Biden administration, athletes, the broadcasters. None of them are particularly thrilled with the IOC’s work here. It just raises this question of like, well, it didn’t have to be this way. Why are we doing this at all? It seems like no one’s very happy about it.

S2: And I think that speaks to the imbalance of power here. And in Olympic sports in general, the athletes have very little power. Organizations like the US Olympic Committee and even NBC, frankly, they have some power and, you know, sponsors have some power to influence decisions at the top. But in the end, it’s really just the IOC, this select group of mostly white European men making decisions that affect the whole entire sporting landscape. And and now, you know, this entire discussion that we’re having is a result of those decisions.

S1: Henry Bushnell, I’m super grateful for you joining us, and I hope you keep testing negative so you can get on that flight to Beijing.

S2: I hope so, too. Thanks, Mary.

S1: Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. And that’s our show. What next is produced by Carmel Delshad, Elaina Schwartz Mary Wilson and Danielle Hewitt. We are led by Alicia Montgomery and I’m Mary Harris. You can go find me on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.