Congressional panel pressures IOC to postpone Beijing Olympics, citing human rights violations

The leaders of a bipartisan Congressional panel called on the International Olympic Committee to postpone the upcoming Winter Games in Beijing and move them if China doesn't take steps to "end its gross violations of human rights."

In a letter sent Friday to IOC president Thomas Bach, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., chair and co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and ranking members Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., cited the worsening crisis in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, a police state in western China where more than a million Uyghur Muslims are held in barbed-wire camps and are reportedly subject to forced labor and sterilization.

"No Olympics should be held in a country whose government is committing genocide and crimes against humanity," the letter read.

The letter was released on the same day as the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Summer Olympics -- and less than seven months before the Winter Games are set to open in Beijing on Feb. 4.

The lawmakers also criticized the IOC for its failure to respond to a similar letter in 2018 urging the committee to confront China over human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

"We have seen no evidence that the IOC has taken any steps to press the Chinese government to change its behavior," Merkley and McGovern wrote. "We believe that it would reflect extremely poorly on the Olympic movement, and the international community in general, if the IOC were to proceed with holding the Olympic Games in a country whose government is committing genocide and crimes against humanity as if nothing were wrong."

The United States is among several countries, including Canada and England, that have accused the Chinese government of gross human rights abuses. Human rights groups and news organizations have documented those allegations, which have been corroborated by former detainees. For their part, Chinese officials have denied accusations of forced labor, while calling the camps in Xinjiang vocational training centers aimed at stamping out Islamic extremism.

The IOC could not be immediately reached for comment. Speaking to reporters in March, Bach said the IOC took allegations of human rights violations seriously but added that it was in no position to alter China's actions beyond those related to the Games themselves.

"We are not a super world government where the IOC could solve or even address issues for which not a U.N. Security Council, no G-7, no G-20 has a solution," he said. "So this is in the remits of politics. We have to live up to our responsibilities within our area of responsibilities. And the governments have to live up to their responsibilities in their remits."

In their letter, leaders of the CECC said their rationale for postponement of the Beijing Games goes beyond politics.

"This is not a matter of whether the Olympics should be immune from politics. Taking action against genocide is not politics," they said. "It is about basic morality and human dignity."

The CECC was created in 2000 with a mandate to monitor human rights in China. In May, the commission held hearings to address concerns about the 2022 Beijing Games, during which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other lawmakers called for a diplomatic boycott in which no top U.S. government officials would attend the Games.

Several Congressional sources told ESPN there is little appetite among legislators to call for a full boycott, which they fear would only punish American athletes who dedicate their lives to training for the competition.

In their letter Friday, Merkley and McGovern said postponing the Games with the possibility of moving them would be in the "best interests" of the athletes.

"We find it unfair for the IOC to force athletes to sacrifice their consciences in order to pursue their competitive goals, or vice versa," they wrote. "We would not want any athlete to have to wear clothing or consume food made as a product of forced labor. ... We would not want to see an athlete penalized, or even detained by the host government, for exercising their right to speak out against genocide."

The CECC is scheduled to hold another hearing Tuesday, this time focused on urging top-level Olympic corporate sponsors to exert influence on China to improve its record on human rights.

Four years ago, in the wake of criticism for repeatedly awarding the Olympics to countries with poor records on human rights (Brazil 2016, Russia 2014, China 2008), the IOC added a clause to its Host City Contract. The IOC announced it would employ the United Nations' Guiding Principles on human rights to press potential host countries to address abuses. But the 2022 Winter Games already had been awarded to Beijing two years earlier, making it the first city in Olympic history chosen to host both the summer and winter Games.