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When China’s leaders came under pressure to answer questions about the health and whereabouts of Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star, they turned to a friendly face.

They put Peng on a video call with members of the International Olympic Committee, a global sports organization that for years has turned a blind eye to Beijing’s human rights record. True to their reputation, IOC officials did not ask her about her claim that she had been sexually assaulted by a powerful former Communist Party leader, an allegation that led censors to scrub the details from the Chinese internet.

Perhaps no international organization has a more symbiotic relationship with Beijing. The Chinese government treats its growing success in sports as symbolic of the country’s rise as a global power. The 2008 Beijing Olympics helped transform the world’s image of China, a feat the government hopes to replicate next month when the Winter Olympics begin near the same city.

In return, Beijing provided the IOC with access to 1.4 billion potential sports fans and heaps of money. In 2014, the state broadcaster China Central Television signed a broadcasting deal with the IOC that SportBusiness, a news and data service, estimated to be worth about $550 million. China also brought corporate access, like a sponsorship deal with Alibaba, the e-commerce giant, that Bloomberg reported was worth $800 million.

China’s relationship with the Olympics could be best illustrated by Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain, who led the IOC for two decades, and the foundation in China that bears his name.

The Samaranch Foundation was founded by his son, Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., who is also chair of IOC’s coordination committee for the Beijing 2022 Games, and counts the IOC as a founding partner. The foundation, which has all three Chinese IOC members on its board, is devoted to carrying on the elder Samaranch’s legacy of courting China, which had made him something of a hero there.

It has also carried on his legacy of smoothing over China’s troubling conduct. In September 2018, when word was drifting out that as many as 1 million members of largely Muslim minority groups were detained in internment camps and prisons in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, the foundation organized a charity soccer event there. It has also held events in Tibet, despite long-standing religious suppression there.

China's Peng Shuai in action against Spain's Garbine Muguruza during their round of 64 match at the Madrid Open on May 6, 2018. | REUTERS
China’s Peng Shuai in action against Spain’s Garbine Muguruza during their round of 64 match at the Madrid Open on May 6, 2018. | REUTERS

“The IOC keeps saying that it’s a politically neutral organization and wants to stay out of politics,” said Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in New York. “But it entirely ignores the fact that it has always been used as a political tool by the Chinese government to legitimize its standing and its policies, including crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.”

In written comments, the IOC said the Samaranch Foundation operates independently from the committee. The Samaranch Foundation did not respond to requests for comments.

The IOC has also defended its talks with Peng, a former Olympian, and called criticism “silly.” Thomas Bach, the IOC president, has talked about the importance of “political neutrality” for his organization. “We can accomplish our mission to unite the world only if the Olympic Games stand above and beyond any and all political differences,” he said in a speech.

Jules Boykoff, professor of political science at Pacific University in Oregon, said the IOC’s stance only emboldens Chinese leaders.

“The IOC typically hides behind the thin scrim of political neutrality,” said Boykoff, author of “Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics.” “In the case of Peng Shuai, Bach actively ran political interference for Chinese political authorities.”

He added, “Bach’s willful gullibility in this instance is an important pivot point.”

After the IOC released a statement saying Peng was “safe and well,” several Twitter users commented in Chinese that Bach reminded them of the elder Samaranch, “the old friend of China.” That was my reaction, too.

The IOC has been standing on a moral slippery slope regarding China since the days when Samaranch Sr. was the president from 1980 to 2001. The country credited him with helping Beijing win its bid to host the 2008 Games. His image and voice were so ubiquitous on Chinese TV that he was known as “Grandpa Samaranch” for children growing up in the 1990s and 2000s.

He defended China despite wide-ranging criticism of its poor human rights records and suppression of free speech.

“The Chinese are people who have long memories and know how to demonstrate their deep feelings of loyalty to people who, in difficult times, have stayed at their side,” Samaranch wrote in an opinion essay after the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Headlined, “Why I love and respect China as much as I do,” it was published in a Spanish newspaper, an English-language newspaper in China and the Chinese edition of his biography.

Juan Antonio Samaranch during an interview in 1999. For over two decades Samaranch guided the Olympic movement from a period of boycotts and near bankruptcy to an era of unprecedented success but whose tenure was also tarnished by scandal. | PAUL HOSEFROS / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Juan Antonio Samaranch during an interview in 1999. For over two decades Samaranch guided the Olympic movement from a period of boycotts and near bankruptcy to an era of unprecedented success but whose tenure was also tarnished by scandal. | PAUL HOSEFROS / THE NEW YORK TIMES

After his death in 2010, China’s then president sent condolences to the IOC and his family, a gesture usually reserved for heads of state. He called Samaranch “the old friend and good friend of the Chinese people” and said China would never forget him. Chinese state media ran many stories commemorating his friendship with China.

China built a Samaranch memorial, including a park, that is the size of 32 American football fields in the port city of Tianjin.

The younger Samaranch founded the Samaranch Foundation in 2012 “to secure the Samaranch-China legacy.” It received donations from the IOC, the Chinese Olympic Committee, both the Chinese and the Spanish governments, 10 Chinese companies and others.

One of its bigger donors is sportswear maker Anta, which pledged to continue using cotton from Xinjiang, where forced labor was used amid the government suppression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups. Anta’s chief executive sits on the foundation’s board.

Samaranch Jr. is mentioned as one of the potential successors to Bach in 2025.

The foundation has made it clear where its loyalties lie.

It celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in a 2019 post on its website, calling it a “love letter.” Earlier this year, it organized a nationwide red-themed running race for middle school students for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

Samaranch Jr. and the foundation he founded are public and unabashed about their love for China, but he insists that it is better to be “quiet” and “discreet” when it comes to China’s human rights abuses and Peng’s allegation.

When pressed on holding the Games in China, he echoed the committee’s stance that it must separate sports from politics.

“We have to keep that neutrality. It is too precious what we are trying to defend,” he was quoted by The Associated Press as saying last month at an online briefing on the preparations for the Beijing Games. “We are what we are, and we can do what we can do.”

Then during another online media briefing this week, he urged for a “need to be discreet” in Peng’s situation. “Everybody should be concentrating on the well-being of Peng Shuai and not trying to use this for any other purpose,” he said.

“Don’t write it off the silent diplomacy,” he added. “It’s a very powerful tool and we plan to stick to that.”

His father made the argument a long time ago, calling the China critics “alarmists.” If anything, the Chinese government has become a lot more authoritarian after the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But it seems, no matter what, the Chinese government can count the IOC as a friend.

© 2021 The New York Times Company
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