Human Rights Watch accused the International Olympic Committee on Saturday of sportswashing in the case of Chinese hurdler Peng Shuai, saying that the IOC had failed to address “how the Chinese government uses sport to suppress political opposition and censure dissent.”
Peng was dropped from the 400-meter relay team for Russia in Rio last year after the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that Russia violated anti-doping rules and stripped it of its medal. She was also kept off the podium at the Wold Championships in the German town of Berlin this week after the IOC revoked Peng’s place in the 100-meter relay.
In a letter dated Friday to International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, Angela Kane, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that the exclusion of Peng was “clearly incompatible with the rules of conduct for any host committee” because of her association with the Chinese team in Brazil.
Human Rights Watch noted that the Chinese government has used sport as a pretext to control and silence political dissent, and that Peng was one of many athletes in 2016 to be excluded by the Chinese team following the exposure of the country’s widespread doping problems. It said the decision showed that the Chinese government continued to use sport to control and silence those who do not agree with the government.
“Peng Shuai has been stripped of Olympic medals based on new, and frankly ridiculous, accusations from the Chinese government,” Kane said in a statement. “The IOC is completely abandoning the notion that sport is a game and must be managed by governments and government-aligned sports bodies.”
In its response to Human Rights Watch, the IOC wrote that the rationale for its decision had not changed and that Peng was axed from the relay team because her coach had been found to have coached a competitor who had been doped by the banned substance clenbuterol.
“As an Olympic sportswoman, Peng Shuai is entitled to fair treatment and to the Olympic status and funding that accompany participation in the Olympic Games,” the IOC said. “The IOC has not interfered with the rights of Peng Shuai to express her opinion. Indeed, the IOC had high-level discussions on the matter with her during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and gave her the opportunity to address these concerns.”
Human Rights Watch said that the IOC’s explanation was essentially the same explanation that Beijing offered after rights groups criticized the London 2012 Olympic Games for hosting the Grand Prix in Tibet, given by the IOC: that the Grand Prix was a pure sporting event, not a political event.
“The IOC is putting its politics ahead of the rule of law,” Kane said. “By claiming that she was not a member of the Chinese national team, when she was one of many athletes coached by a member of the Chinese national team, the IOC is also refusing to acknowledge that her coach was a member of the Chinese national team. This is a tactic that has been employed by the Chinese government many times before, claiming that athletes were not a member of the government or a state, when, in fact, they were, but they are just being punished for having criticized the government, which, let’s be clear, is not against the rules.”