The question was posed to the five figure skaters in a Monday afternoon press conference that was part of the Beijing 2022 Team USA Media Summit.
They were asked if anyone wanted to comment on the human rights issues that have made China a controversial host of the upcoming Winter Olympics.
Three-time Olympic ice dancer Evan Bates did not hesitate to address the topic.
“Speaking on behalf of all the athletes, I can say human rights violations are abysmal, and we all believe that it tears the fabric of humanity,” Bates said.
Asked if that answer referred specifically to China, Bates did not backtrack and mentioned its Uyghur Muslims. Human Rights Watch has described the Chinese government’s arbitrary detention, torture and mass surveillance of Muslims in Xinjiang province of northwest China.
“My answer could be applicable to human rights at large, but if you’re asking what’s happening in China regarding the Muslims, it’s terrible, it’s awful,” Bates said.
“I have no problems in speaking for the athletes in saying what’s happening there is terrible. We’re human beings too and when we read and hear about the things that are happening there, we absolutely hate that. We hate what’s going on there.”
Bates’ ice dance partner, Madison Chock, whose ancestry is part Chinese, added, “I wanted to just say all the experiences we have had in China in the past have been very positive… even (with) all of that is going on, those issues don’t represent the entire country because there are so many good people there.
“Just because something terrible has happened doesn’t mean everyone (in China) supports what is going on or believes that’s the right thing to do.”
Two other 2022 U.S. Olympic team hopefuls of Chinese descent, singles skaters Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou, backed Bates’ position in later press conferences Monday during the virtual media summit.
“I agree with what Evan was saying,” said Chen, three-time reigning world champion. “I think for a greater change to occur there must be power that is beyond the Olympics. It has to be change at a remarkable scale.
“However, the fact that people are talking about this issue, and the Olympics are bringing it to light is already a step in the right direction.”
Zhou, like Chen a 2018 Olympian, said, “As athletes, we still retain our humanity. We heard what Evan said. We echo his sentiment.
“As hopeful Olympic athletes in 2022, our job is to go into the competition completely focused on ourselves. Having concerns about things going on in the political climate or elsewhere is important but not productive towards our primary goal. We echo Evan’s sentiment and would still like to focus on our own jobs.”
Bates’ forthrightness recalled that of Ashley Wagner at the Team USA Media Summit in Park City, Utah, before the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Asked then about Russia’s anti-gay legislation, Wagner replied, “I have such a firm stance on this. I believe we should all have equal rights, and I also do not support the legislation in Russia… I believe the best way for you to show support for the (LGBTQ+) community is to speak out about it.”
Other U.S. skaters asked about the issue declined to address it.
Even once in Sochi, Wagner was unafraid to reference the situation.
“It doesn’t matter where I am, it’s still my opinion,” Wagner said after remarking on the rainbow color scheme at the Olympic practice rink.
Wagner was pleased when the U.S. government tweaked the Russians by sending three openly gay athletes in its official delegation to the opening and closing ceremonies.
When the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee leadership had its media summit press availability Tuesday morning, they were asked if, given Bates’ statements, there was concern about sending athletes into a country where much of the world has expressed some disgust about the way its Uyghur Muslim population was being treated and if there was concern about China retaliating against any athletes who speak out.
“As you know, we encourage our athletes to support the values of the Olympic movement, which include non-discrimination and equality for all, so it’s not unexpected that we have athletes who feel strongly about issues in the world that may impact that,” USOPC board chair Susanne Lyons said.
“We expect China is going to be a unique situation to really allow sport to speak for unity, global peace and the rights of people around the world. We really have no opportunity since we are not a government to influence the activities of another country’s rules and regulations and treatment of people within their own country.
“Certainly, our athletes will have points of view about that. It is our job to ensure they are able to express themselves but also to ensure that they are kept safe.”
USOPC chief executive Sarah Hirshland said her organization will focus on getting U.S. athletes information so they “understand the rules that are set out, the risks, their opportunities (so they can) make the best choices.”
At the Beijing 2008 Summer Games, U.S. Olympic officials were so worried about offending China they demanded an apology of four U.S. cyclists who, concerned about Beijing’s pollution, wore USOC-issued surgical masks upon arrival at the Beijing airport.
Some of the cyclists later said the USOC (as it was called then) had advised the athletes to wear the masks in public places like airports and criticized the USOC leaders for publicly shaming and bullying them into contrition.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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