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As the Olympics near, activists criticize China's alleged human rights violations

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One of the most controversial Olympic Games in history is almost here. The Beijing Winter Games opening ceremony is set for early February. And this week, as athletes continue their final preparations, activists ramped up criticism of China's human rights violations. As NPR's Tom Goldman reports, their message was both resolute and resigned.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: They came together on Zoom - activists and athletes - for a kind of full-court press with the media, one of the last before the Olympics.

MINKY WORDEN: Every country commits human rights abuses.

GOLDMAN: Minky Worden is director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch.

WORDEN: But certainly, it is the case that there has not been a host government committing crimes against humanity. This is really a new low.

GOLDMAN: Ever since U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists at the 1968 Summer Games, athletes often have been the most powerful advocates for change. There's been an expectation that would continue in Beijing. Some have spoken out about China's policies toward its Uyghur minority, policies the U.S. government has labeled cultural genocide, which China has denied. But athletes are being warned about expressing their opinions at the games. U.S. cross-country skier Noah Hoffman competed at the last two Winter Olympics.

NOAH HOFFMAN: The lack of digital privacy, the lack of ability to speak freely, that makes me upset. And I'm scared for their safety when they go to China.

GOLDMAN: The IOC, the International Olympic Committee, allows athletes to express their views outside of competition and official ceremonies, where activists say those expressions would have maximum impact. But athletes are expected to respect the applicable laws and, in the case of China, that could have a chilling effect. Activists note free speech is severely limited in China.

This week, an official with the Beijing Organizing Committee confirmed any behavior or speech against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are subject to certain punishment. The official didn't say what the punishment might be, but Rob Koehler says Olympians shouldn't test the waters to find out. Keeler leads the advocacy group Global Athlete. Its membership includes hundreds of Olympians.

ROB KOEHLER: The IOC has not come out proactively to indicate that we will protect and make sure everyone is safe that decides to speak up. So we're advising athletes not to speak up, and that's a sad statement that we have to say that.

GOLDMAN: While athletes may end up being silent, U.S. lawmakers won't. There's been rare bipartisanship when it comes to China and human rights violations. That continued yesterday when Republican Representative Mike Waltz and Democrat Jennifer Wexton introduced a bill that would penalize the IOC for awarding the games to China. It would strip the IOC's tax-exempt status in this country. The IOC's had that since 1992 as a, quote, "social welfare organization." American corporate sponsorships and TV contracts are the largest source of revenue for the committee - billions of dollars, much of it not taxed. If the bill became law, it would be. Here's Wexton.

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JENNIFER WEXTON: This is a substantial amount of money. It would be a real penalty for them, and I think that they would feel the pain from that.

GOLDMAN: In an email to NPR, IOC spokesman Mark Adams said, quote, "we have heard of this initiative," but he didn't comment further.

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UNIDENTIFIED OLYMPIAN: I felt really honored to go and represent our country in front of the world on the biggest stage.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The Winter Olympics, coming February 3.

GOLDMAN: Activists worry that once the athletes start skating and sliding and skiing in China, attention will pivot to the compelling stories and competition. It always happens. But two recent Pew Research Center polls show a majority of Americans is concerned about human rights in China, meaning the IOC's constant refrain - sports and politics - don't mix will be harder to defend this time around. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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