How China Co-Opted the Olympics

Olympics bigwigs dismissed human rights abuses behind closed doors

IOC President Thomas Bach meets with CCP leader Xi Jinping
• May 15, 2021 5:00 am


When Juan Antonio Samaranch Salisachs, the 2022 Beijing Olympics chief, met with Chinese dissidents in a closed-door October meeting, he firmly rejected their plea to relocate the games out of China to protest human rights abuses. "The world lives under very many political systems. We cannot go and say and endorse one or the other. That is not what we do," Salisachs told activists, according to meeting minutes obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

The activists were stunned. "[Salisachs] was talking to me as if he knows so much better than we do," Frances Hui, a Hong Kong activist who attended the meeting, told the Free Beacon. "We were all in shock—they were so disrespectful to us."

The October meeting was far from the first time an Olympics official dismissed Chinese human rights concerns. Salisachs's comments echoed those made by his father—Juan Antonio Samaranch, the former president of the International Olympics Committee—in the years leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The senior Samaranch, remembered today in China as a "dream-maker," for years turned a blind eye to Chinese state repression, telling reporters in 2008, "If we are talking about human rights, many countries that attack China should look at themselves." When pressed, the senior Samaranch often switched up his arguments, saying that the IOC can leverage its international prestige to nudge China to improve its human rights record.

The IOC has abandoned even the pretense of using its influence to reform the Chinese regime. Salisachs refused to consider discussions about Chinese human rights abuses, telling activists the Olympics is not the place to deliberate "political agendas," according to the meeting minutes.

"To try to leverage on the Olympic Games to obtain a number of political agendas is very dangerous," Salisachs said during the October meeting.

Since the 2008 Olympics, the authoritarian country has only strengthened its grip over society, inflicting genocide against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and violent repression in Hong Kong and Tibet. While the IOC failed to influence China, the communist regime has managed to co-opt the IOC. In the last decade or so, the Chinese state fostered corporate sponsorships, personal ties, and institutional connections with Olympics executives, making it difficult for any games to be held without Chinese support.

"The IOC benefits a lot from Chinese business and Chinese government," Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer who attended the October meeting, told the Free Beacon. "And some senior officials have conflicts of interests."

China's multi-year effort to influence the IOC—ranging from a Samaranch memorial park the size of five football fields to lucrative deals with Chinese tech company Alibaba—provides a cautionary tale of how China uses its global influence to co-opt international organizations. China has used similar tactics to sway a wide range of international institutions, from the WHO to the U.N. Human Rights Council. The influence peddling operations have proven effective: The WHO refuses to give membership to Taiwan; meanwhile, Chinese diplomats in the UNHRC threaten experts who testify about China’s genocide of Muslim Uyghurs.

The Chinese state used a multi-pronged strategy to influence the IOC. One of the most important pillars of this strategy was the cultivation of personal ties to the Samaranch family. The senior Samaranch helped China whip the votes necessary to secure the right to host the 2008 Olympics. When he died in 2010, China built a 144,000-square-meter memorial park in Tianjin, China. The memorial opened in 2013 and displays 16,000 items from the former IOC president's "personal collection—books, stamps, souvenirs, paintings, letters, photographs, and personal items." Chinese leader Xi Jinping posthumously awarded Samaranch the "China Reform Friendship Medal" in 2018, recognizing him as one of 10 foreigners who contributed to China in the post-Mao era.

As the Chinese state showered Samaranch with honors, his son, Salisachs, climbed up through the ranks of the IOC. The younger Salisachs became a vice president on the IOC executive board in 2016, and soon after was named the chairman of the coordination commission for the 2022 games. He is considered a likely contender for the IOC presidency in 2025. Salisachs, like his father, is now one of the regime's public boosters, appearing on Chinese propaganda outlets to praise the authoritarian regime. In February 2020, Salisachs downplayed the coronavirus threat during an interview with Xinhua News, a Chinese state-owned outlet. He praised China's "transparent, efficient, and strong" pandemic response.

"The population and the administrators of the Chinese government are giving the world an example of how to cope with a very serious thing," he said.

Teng, the human rights lawyer, said that Salisachs is an example of how senior IOC officials are willing to stay silent on Chinese human rights abuses to pursue their own interests. "The IOC's top officials have very good connections to the Chinese government," Teng said. "They may have said they are in favor of human rights, but that's only lip service."

The Chinese government has increased its reach into the IOC in recent years. Yu Zaiqing, a senior Chinese Communist Party official, has sat alongside Salisachs on the IOC executive board since 2014. China is one of six countries—and the only non-Western state—to have three active-duty IOC members. China's representation in the IOC gives it outsized influence on IOC decisions, including where to host the next Olympics.

While the Chinese state built ties to the Samaranch family, Chinese corporate entities established lucrative sponsorship deals with the IOC. None has played a greater role than Chinese tech giant Alibaba. As part of a 12-year deal—which was discussed in a meeting between Xi and IOC president Thomas Bach—Alibaba will play an "active role" in providing essential tech services for all Olympic Games, including the 2022 Beijing Games. The company has pledged to use its cloud computing infrastructure to help international broadcasters stream the games across the world. That assistance is essential for the bottomline of the IOC, which makes nearly three quarters of its $5 billion revenue by selling broadcasting rights. Alibaba will also run the Olympics' official online store in China, playing a mediator role between the IOC and Chinese consumers.

"This is much more than a traditional sponsorship," a senior Alibaba executive said in 2017. "We are committed to supporting the IOC to transform the Olympic Games for the digital era."

While Alibaba is ostensibly independent, the Chinese government has for years threatened to bring the tech company under its heel. After founder Jack Ma criticized the country's financial policy in 2020, the Chinese state slapped a massive fine on the company and imposed regulations that allow Beijing greater oversight of its operations. The Chinese government is also considering ousting Ma from his own company.

The IOC counts other Chinese companies as major sponsors as well. Mengniu Dairy, a Chinese beverage company, signed a $3 billion deal with the IOC and Coca-Cola, one of the biggest deals of its kind in sports history. The IOC also works with the Chinese company ANTA to manufacture Olympics uniforms—an arrangement that came under fire in April after ANTA confirmed it used cotton made in Xinjiang for its products. The IOC has yet to announce any changes to the partnership, despite concerns that Xinjiang-made cotton relies on forced labor for its production.

And the pandemic will likely further strengthen the Chinese government's influence over the IOC—China will sell its vaccine to all contestants in the 2022 Beijing Olympics as well as the postponed 2021 Tokyo Olympics. "We are grateful for this offer, which is in the true Olympic spirit of solidarity," Bach, the current IOC president, said in a March online meeting announcing the vaccine purchases.

Since the October meeting, activists have shifted their efforts to calling on countries and corporations to boycott the Olympics—a measure supported by some U.S. politicians. They say they changed their strategy when the IOC ignored them after the meeting, despite a pledge to continue the dialogue.

"Their strategy after the meeting was to ignore us, pretend that they don’t know anything about the human rights abuses," Hui, the Hong Kong activist, said. "All of us got out of the meeting with a huge disappointment."

Published under: CCP, China, IOC, Olympics, Xi Jinping