Canadian athletes head to Beijing despite tense China-Canada relationship
Canada's athletes head to Beijing's Winter Games amid troubling tensions between their country and host China.
China's recent detention of two Canadians for almost three years, and its treatment of one of its own star athletes, hit close to home for Canadian athletes amid the broader criticisms of China's human rights record, which have increased in volume as they did ahead of Beijing's 2008 Summer Games.
Canada joining a handful of other nations -- the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, Denmark -- in a diplomatic boycott of Beijing's Olympic opening ceremonies further salts Sino-Canadian relations.
China's treatment of the primarily Muslim Uyghur ethnic group and other minorities, as well as a human-rights crackdown in Hong Kong, were among the reasons given for the diplomatic boycott.
Canadian human rights groups were part of an international coalition of 180 urging a wholesale walkout of Beijing's Winter Games a year ago, but the Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee never budged from their anti-boycott stance.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stating neither he nor his cabinet will show their faces Feb. 4 in National Stadium deflected boycott talk away from Canada's athletes.
Had China not released Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in September, their continued detention would have fuelled pro-boycott sentiment.
Tensions linger over what Canada considers retaliation imprisonment of the two men following the 2018 arrest of telecommunications executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on a United States extradition request.
Athletes have had their Olympic plans scuttled by politics before. COC president Tricia Smith couldn't row in the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow because Canada joined a Western-led boycott over the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.
The Soviets remained in Afghanistan for another eight years and led a retaliatory boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
So Canada's athletes don't want to be used as geopolitical pawns again, even if they don't agree with elements of China's domestic and international policies.
"It's very difficult to separate sport and politics. In fact, you can't," said 13-time Paralympic cross-county champion Brian McKeever of Canmore, Alta.
"We've also seen that boycotts in the past don't work. Should we boycott? Will it change anything? I don't believe for a second that it will change a damn thing. Does that mean that we are supportive of what is going on? We are not."
World champion speedskater Laurent Dubreuil of Levis, Que., believes Canadian athletes pulling out of Beijing's Games wouldn't carry the transformative sting people think it might.
"I don't think China cares too much if we send people to the Olympics or not. I don't think they're going to cry about it if Canada doesn't show up," he said.
"A lot of people who are going to say we should boycott the Games still buy stuff from China. To me, it's putting a lot of responsibility on athletes. If we want to boycott something, just don't buy stuff from China."
Peng Shuai was a topic of discussion in the women's alpine ski community in November when the Chinese tennis player accused a high-ranking Communist party official of sexual assault.
Her disappearance from public view spawned the social media hashtag "WhereIsPengShuai".
Shuai's later retractive statements were felt in many quarters to be made under duress, and the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) took the extraordinary step of withdrawing its tournaments from China.
A three-time Olympian potentially muzzled by her own country gets the attention of her international peers.
"We were really shocked by it," Canadian skier Marie-Michele Gagnon said in December. "I think it's really sad that she can't really come out with those allegations and continue with those allegations.
"I don't know the whole story so I can't really speak to that situation, but I definitely stand behind her as a female."
The International Olympic Committee had few takers for the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Games when Oslo, Norway dropped out.
That left a two-horse race between Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan. The latter was a scene of widespread protests and militarized government crackdowns this month.
Athletes have no influence in the IOC's choice of a host city, Whitehorse cross-country skier Dahria Beatty said.
"I definitely hope that most people can see that sport is not really a place to try to power play politics," she said. "I personally don't believe whether we went to the Games or not, or any country went to the Games or not, would actually affect anything in the grand scheme of things.
"It would just hurt athletes and it would be very disappointing for many Canadians to not to be able to watch their country compete."
Two-time Olympic hockey gold medallist Gina Kingsbury, who now oversees the women's team headed to Beijing as Hockey Canada director of hockey operations, feels the Olympic Games transcend the host city.
"I see the Games globally. It's not us going to China and providing them the gift of the Olympic Games in their country," she said.
"I think the Games bring so much positivity globally, that it doesn't matter where we (have) these Olympic Games, it doesn't matter what country. It reaches a much wider audience. I think that outweighs the punishment that we would put on China by not going there."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 23, 2022.