Team USA Is Leading a Secret Protest Movement Inside the Winter Olympics – Students for a Free Tibet
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Team USA Is Leading a Secret Protest Movement Inside the Winter Olympics

February 11, 2022

The IOC flag and Republic of China flag are seen flying next to each other during the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at the Beijing National Stadium on February 04, 2022 in Beijing, China. Xavier Laine/Getty Images

Original article: Rolling Stone
Author: Matt Sullivan

From boycotts at the Beijing Games to sponsor battles back home, activist Olympians are fighting for their right to dissent beyond the podium

The athletes wouldn’t dare take a knee — not in China. There would be no fists raised toward Xi Jingping or Vladimir Putin in the skybox, what with endorsements on the line. But young activists had briefed more than two-dozen members of Team USA in the run-up to the Winter Olympics, including selfie diplomacy at a ski lodge with Shaun White and the Tibetan flag. Last Friday night, then, the delegations marched into Beijing’s arena of agitprop, and the rebels stayed behind the scenes.

A band of Olympians across multiple nations privately boycotted last week’s Opening Ceremony, Rolling Stone has learned, and a gold medalist is said to be preparing a public rebuke of China’s human-rights abuse after the Games. Afraid that Beijing organizers who’ve already threatened “certain punishment” of athlete speech might surveil them, many delegates have dialed back communication from inside the Chinese “closed loop” — a bottleneck for viral infection and freedom of expression alike. Activists received early indications from Olympians and those close to them that at least 15 competitors intended to skip the opening-night spectacle in defiance of China, and a broadcast analysis helps to substantiate their absence. 

These previously unreported demonstrations at the 2022 Beijing Games have been silent ones, so far; during a time of diplomatic boycott, politicians warn that Olympians face real danger as their countries’ de-facto ambassadors inside hostile territory. Indeed, activist athletes have been drowned out by the host nation’s candy-coated authoritarianism — a token member of an oppressed ethnic minority picked to light the torch, a disappeared tennis star planted to cheer on an American skier winning gold for Team China — then sunken by complicit sponsors and suppressed by the Olympics’ governing body.

But a low-key protest movement is bubbling up, and interviews from the Olympic Villages — combined with increased scrutiny from Washington, D.C. plus internal Team USA communications obtained by RS — reveal an American-led standoff with China and the International Olympic Committee for the soul of the Games.

“Those athletes that are skipping Opening Ceremonies, I am proud of them,” Rep. James McGovern, who co-chairs the Congressional commission monitoring China, tells Rolling Stone when informed of the secret athlete boycotts. “But there aren’t enough negative words in the dictionary to adequately describe my feelings for the IOC for putting these athletes in this situation. They knew when they decided to locate the Olympics in Beijing that China had a horrific human-rights record — and yet they didn’t give a shit.”

In the wake of a racial reckoning, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee pressured the IOC to stop its longtime rule threatening peaceful demonstration on the medal stand. In China, however, current and former Olympians remain anxious that any attempts to pull a Colin Kaepernick on ice could lead to an even more slippery slope.

“I’m not one that’s gonna take a knee,” says Elana Meyers Taylor, the favorite for gold in bobsled. “That’s not my style.” Taylor went missing from the Opening Ceremony, too — for a positive Covid test — but moments after watching her replacement on TV, the gold-medal favorite tells RS from isolation that the IOC is the primary “preventer” of protest. “We work so hard to get to the Olympics, so the last thing we want to do is get thrown out — or if you do win a medal, get that medal taken away from you,” she says. “Yes, the USOPC says they’re not gonna punish you, but they’re not the ones handing out the medals. So what do you do?”

Dr. John Carlos has a few favorite disciples: Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. Kaepernick. Kyrie Irving, that one time. But the one who reminds him most of himself — of the indelible gloves clenched for human rights by Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Summer Olympics, after which they were suspended by the U.S. committee — is Gwen Berry. “She doesn’t have a thin veneer,” says Dr. Carlos, now 76, in a rare interview. “It takes a tremendous amount of courage to step out — that depth that she has, or that I have… or Muhammad Ali.”

Berry sought out Carlos in 2019 after the USOPC placed her on a year-long probation for putting a fist up during “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Pan-American Games. “If you got that platform,” Dr. Carlos reminded her, “use it.” Nobody really remembers the white fencer who knelt on his podium that weekend. But the act of discontent had been a risk for a Black woman raised in Ferguson, Missouri; some $50,000 in endorsements with Nike and the USA Track & Field Foundation dried up.

A monthly check from the New York Athletic Club provided a lifeline. For over two decades, the private social club has pumped millions into an endowment for Olympic athletes. “$750 a month, to an American hammer-thrower, is significant,” the 32-year-old Berry admits. Despite the reprimand from Team USA, she claims NYAC pledged its continued support out of white guilt. The club had excluded Black, Puerto Rican, Jewish, and female members and athletes into the 1960s; Dr. Carlos, who was one of them, says, “The New York Athletic Club is like the NFL: They give you a job to contain you and to control you, and if they feel that you have jumped out of the stable, then they want to disown you.”

The club, which also faced a lawsuit alleging racial slurs and sexual misconduct in 2012 (both parties declined to comment on its status), said in a statement that it “is proud of its athletes and their accomplishments, and of the diversity of their experience, backgrounds, and opinions. We value our athletes, past and present, and strive to treat them with the respect and dignity that they deserve.”

But Berry got caught veering away from the flag. This was last June, after a USOPC council of athletes had already convinced Team USA not to punish peaceful protest. Berry placed third at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials, and she was about to pull over a T-shirt that read ACTIVIST ATHLETE, right there on the medal stand. Then the national anthem started before her intended demonstration could begin, and so she became a pariah accused of turning her back on America. 

EUGENE, OREGON - JUNE 26: Gwendolyn Berry (L), third place, turns away from U.S. flag during the U.S. National Anthem as DeAnna Price (C), first place, and Brooke Andersen, second place, also stand on the podium after the Women's Hammer Throw final on day nine of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 26, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. In 2019, the USOPC reprimanded Berry after her demonstration on the podium at the Lima Pan-American Games. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Gwen Berry (L), third place, turns away from the flag during the national anthem on day nine of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials in Eugene, Oregon. Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Several members of the New York Athletic Club contacted its board members and officers “requesting that you be punished for your protest,” a NYAC official would email Berry. Club executives scheduled a call. “It was fair warning that if I did something on the podium, they would absolutely not support me anymore,” Berry recalls. “It was gaslighting: We cannot support you because of how those people feel about what you’re doing — all the rich white people.”

Ahead of the Tokyo Games, the IOC tweaked its notorious Rule 50, the regulation restricting athlete behavior which had suppressed Dr. Carlos half a century earlier, in order to permit Olympians to “express their views” — so long as they didn’t do so on the field of play, or on the podium, or in the Olympic Villages, or at the Opening or Closing Ceremonies. An IOC executive claims “this was a rule established by the athletes, for the athletes.” But Berry says, “Let’s face it: The IOC made this rule to silence Black athletes.”

And still, women’s soccer players from across the globe took a knee at midfield to kick off the Summer Olympics. Posing for photos after winning silver, American shot-putter Raven Saunders, 25, crossed her arms in an X for racial injustice, LGBTQ rights, and mental-health awareness. 

Berry raised her fist twice inside Tokyo’s track-and-field arena, failed to medal, and flew home. When her check from the New York Athletic Club didn’t show up in the autumn billing cycle, she notified them twice to make sure it hadn’t gotten lost in the mail. A club official blamed pandemic revenue shortfalls; all the rich white people were moving out of the city. Late last month, Berry’s sponsorship was terminated.

“I got dropped because I am a Black athlete advocating for a change in an American system in how they treat Black people and minorities,” Berry tells Rolling Stone. (In its statement, NYAC said the end of its funding for Berry “was unrelated to her race or to her role as an advocate.”)

“The IOC, major corporations — no one holds them accountable,” Berry continues. “But if athletes stay proactive — if they are not afraid — then that keeps us going.”

Saunders, whose X marks the last bold podium demonstration, acknowledges that winter sports don’t exactly portend to protest: The U.S. committee does not provide such data, but a Rolling Stone analysis of Team USA’s 2022 roster suggests that, of 226 athletes representing the United States at the Beijing Games, as few as six identify as Black. In China and going forward, though, Saunders believes another freedom-fighter is out there. “People like me and Gwen, John Carlos and Tommie Smith — even somebody like Colin — we were people that no one would have thought to do it, but in the moment, we shocked the world,” she says. “The next person is going to be someone that you would least expect.”

Jim McGovern reserves his own profanities for the three-headed dragon of the Chinese Communist Party, the IOC, and its multinational advertising partners. Last July, at a hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, he grilled a vice president from Coca-Cola on why sponsors slithered away from their influence instead of forcing a relocation of the Games.  

“Uh,” pivoted the suit from Coke. “We don’t have a position on the, um, if they’re going to be moved or delayed. We will follow these athletes wherever they compete.”

“So if they go to Pyongyang in North Korea, that’s OK, too? Seriously, I mean, your voice matters.”

During the hearing, McGovern and his colleagues also questioned top executives from Airbnb, Intel, Procter & Gamble, and Visa. “They wanna make money, but that doesn’t mean you need to flush your moral compass down the toilet,” McGovern tells RS. “You guys can’t even bring yourself to say, Oh, we’re deeply concerned? I mean, give me a fucking break!”

His co-chair, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, has a solution to protect athletes who face an undue political burden: “These are long-standing Olympic sponsors who say they have no role in selection? They need to make it absolutely clear to the IOC that they will cancel their sponsorship immediately should the Games ever again be assigned to a nation that is engaged in such horrific conduct.”

Throughout a tense, closed-door meeting with IOC voting members last September, Merkley batted away excuses about evidence of forced labor and forced sterilization surfacing only after Beijing was awarded the Games in 2015. “When we pressed them, they said, ‘We are all about the athletes,’” he tells Rolling Stone. “Well, if you are all about the athletes, you don’t make them pawns of a nation’s effort to cover up their egregious human-rights conduct.”

The IOC officials boasted that they had warned Chinese cyclists for wearing Chairman Mao badges on the Tokyo medal stand; Merkeley didn’t take this slap on the wrist seriously. Before leaving the half-hour huddle, the Senator compared the 2022 Olympics to something of a sequel the 1936 “Nazi Olympics” in Berlin, where Adolf Hitler congratulated German gold medalists but not Jesse Owens’ Black teammate; the IOC had simply offered Hitler the opportunity to shake hands with every champion or none at all. (Spokespeople for the IOC did not confirm or deny this characterization of the Senate meeting.)

Pressed in a letter from the Congressional co-chairs to redouble its efforts in protecting athletes who speak out on Chinese soil, Team USA threw up its hands: “While we support athletes’ right to demonstrate peacefully, we cannot control the actions others may take in response,” USOPC chief Sarah Hirshland wrote in a memo sent to Merkley and McGovern last week and obtained by Rolling Stone.

“On freedom of expression,” says a U.S. government official with direct knowledge of Team USA’s interactions with Capitol Hill, “they’re hedging their bets, because everybody’s nervous about what could happen during these two weeks.”

Across the summit from Dragon Alley, past a trail named Solitude and a run to the base down Wall Street, two young activists stepped into the main lodge of Northern California’s Mammoth Mountain early on the morning of Jan. 7. One held a letter full of personal stories from Tibetan, Uyghur, and Hong Konger students. The other carried the flag of her family’s native Tibet. They’d been canvassing Team USA trials as members of Students for a Free Tibet, walking right up to Olympic hopefuls and — pow! — there was one of the most famous heads of red hair on Earth.

Shaun White, sitting out the halfpipe qualifier with lingering Covid symptoms, began to read the letter as Sonya Imin explained that the activists hoped to ensure Olympians became educated enough about China to make a difference. The 30-year-old Uyghur-American felt sorry for Americans who were about to be contained, silenced, and, she feared, perhaps detained in Beijing. She asked for a closed-door follow-up after the Games, to move past superstars like LeBron James blaming their own ignorance amidst geopolitical flare-ups abroad. “When someone says that, it’s more about the fear of China’s leveraging of power,” Amin tells RS. “And with the athletes, everyone has something to lose.”

The Tibetan-American activist explained that the Chinese have made it illegal for her relatives to possess their own flag. A snowboarding fan, she asked if White would take a photo with it; knowing a selfie might go viral, he asked if they’d like to find space for a better backdrop than the Yodler Restaurant & Bar.

Gold medal snowboarder Shaun White poses with a Tibetan activist who was canvassing during Olympic Trials.

Team USA’s biggest superstar, of course, wasn’t about to break out the Tibetan flag in the middle of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The IOC has never stripped a medal for a political protest. And senior U.S. officials received assurances from the USOPC that China would not impose an “exit ban” on any dissenting athlete at Beijing International Airport amidst such pomp and propaganda.

Toward the end of an expansive conversation with Rolling Stone four days after the encounter at Mammoth, White anticipated sport to overwhelm politics in Beijing. “I don’t think many will boycott,” he says, in a previously unpublished portion of the interview. “But obviously there are things in the world that need to be noted and talked about, and that’s happening as well.”

In his pre-Games press conference, IOC President Thomas Bach insisted that the governing body’s toned-down protest regulations were “very clear” and that the IOC had “no reason to believe this would not be respected.” But athletes tell RS they find Rule 50 vague enough to worry about which actions classify as disrespectful (a T-shirt for the tennis player?) or disruptive (a hashtag Sharpied upon a snowboard?). On Friday, a Ukrainian skeleton racer flashed a small, flag-colored sign reading NO WAR IN UKRAINE, and it remained unclear whether the IOC would investigate. But a top Beijing organizer made the leap from creative demonstration into freedom of speech: “Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.”

Asked by Rolling Stone to clarify the type of potential punishment and whether the host committee would work with Chinese law enforcement to investigate peaceful protest, Olympic organizers responded with a thin veil: “Beijing 2022 respects the freedom of speech of Games participants in accordance with the Host City Contract and the Olympic Charter. However, it should be pointed out that Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter and its guidelines give athletes many rights, but we have noticed that the principle of depoliticising sports has not changed. If there is a violation of Rule 50, we believe that the IOC will deal with it according to the rules.”

But China’s regime is in a high-powered nationalist mode, and the risk of an Olympian talking geopolitics is more dangerous than at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, says Nobel Peace Prize nominee Nathan Law. “There could be detention, there could be jail time, there could be prison waiting for them,” Law, who became Hong Kong’s youngest lawmaker in 2016 before the Chinese Communist Party deported him, tells RS from exile in London.

The chilliest effect is that athletes who would decry the Chinese are, until they can escape from Beijing, hiking into an avalanche without a guide. “They don’t know what the repercussions of their actions might be, and nobody can tell them,” says the 2018 bronze medalist Adam Rippon. “What is the IOC doing? This is their job.”

Rippon is Zooming with Rolling Stone from his room inside the closed loop. The sky through the window over his shoulder is bright, “but that’s because like three weeks before we got here, they told everybody to stop working at the factories,” he says. “It’s all kind of dystopian.” The retired American figure skater hasn’t picked up a burner phone yet (“I’m begging to get hacked”), but he’s been engaging with fellow activist athletes while coaching Team USA’s Mariah Bell. It is an open secret of the Olympic Villages, Rippon says, that competitors feel an extreme discomfort with China’s human-rights record. Olympians are especially, if quietly, distraught with the IOC’s propaganda campaign “to appease the Chinese government” over the fate of Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis player who vanished from public life after accusing a top Chinese politician of sexual assault… until the IOC’s Bach started magically showing up by her side.

“If not every single athlete, then almost every single athlete, has a general idea and has been educated on Peng Shuai and the oppression of so many people here,” Rippon tells RS. “A lot of them don’t want to put themselves or their teammates or anybody that might agree with them in danger.”

John Carlos, like advocates from Washington to Asia, feels the best demonstration to carry on his legacy this year would have been for athletes to skip the 24th Winter Olympiad altogether. “How you gonna go into a hostile country that has a record of the obscenities that they’ve done over the years and think that you can close your eyes to it?” he asks. “And then you go into this country under the auspices of the International Olympic flag — and the Olympic flag is telling you right away: Don’t make no statements. Don’t bring no computer. Stay in the bubble, make our money, make our reputation, fly, and go home.

“This is the shit they say, and then they put it all on the United States,” Dr. Carlos continues. “That’s a propaganda move — and the Olympics? That’s a big payday.”