Opinion: Once an outspoken defender of free speech, USOPC now prefers to say nothing

BEIJING – The Olympic bubble truly is a magical place.

In it, there is no need for U.S. Athletes to weigh a boycott of the opening ceremony in protest of the host’s repressive ways. No reason for U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee leaders to warn athletes to keep their mouths shut for fear of being punished.

All that matters are the fun and Games to be had, now and in the future.

USOPC leaders have not debased themselves anywhere close to the level of International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, who won’t spare even the barest level of humanity for the tormented Uyghur population. Yet in listening to them Friday, it was hard not to wonder how different the Americans’ comments and tone might be if Los Angeles was not hosting the Summer Games in 2028.

Or if Salt Lake City was not trying to win another Winter Olympics, perhaps as early as 2030.

“We didn’t issue warnings. We didn’t issue proclamations. We simply provided information to them,” USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland said. “The Olympic Games is a time to come together in the spirt of sportsmanship and the Olympic values. We promote that with real sincerity.

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“But this is a time for us to celebrate together with our peers and colleagues and athletes around the world,” she added, “and that’s the focus.”.

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The effort to play nice Friday was painfully obvious, and stands in stark contrast to the USOPC’s approach during the Tokyo Olympics.

Before those Games, Hirshland made a point to let athletes know the USOPC supported their right to speak out and would not punish them if they did. When shot putter Raven Saunders protested on the medals podium after winning silver, a direct violation of Rule 50, the USOPC backed her with the IOC.

But it’s easy to be courageous when the host is Japan, a U.S. Ally that doesn’t repress its own people. There is little risk in proclaiming yourself to be a defender of free speech and the right to protest when you know the worst that can happen is a tongue lashing from the IOC.

It’s harder, yet even more important, to declare your allegiance to the most fundamental of U.S. Values when there could be actual consequences for doing so.

Los Angeles is hardly going to lose the 2028 Olympics if an American athlete wears a “Free Tibet” shirt or declares their solidarity with the Uyghurs. The IOC isn’t going to give up the boatload of cash those Games will bring in, let alone risk infuriating NBC.

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But the lives of both USOPC leaders and Los Angeles organizers will be much easier if China, a growing power in the Olympic movement, isn’t nursing a grudge for the next six years. A Salt Lake City bid stands a far better chance of success if China and its allies aren’t actively blocking it.

“There is a lot of excitement around focusing on what … In most cases, is the pinnacle for these athletes, to get an opportunity to do their best,” said Rick Adams, the USOPC’s chief of sports performance. “We take that responsibility very seriously, and we’re just grateful that we’re here and Team USA athletes, and the athletes of the world, are getting an opportunity to do their best on the world’s biggest stage.”.

In an ideal world, yes, USOPC leaders would be free to stick to sports and not have to concern themselves with geopolitics and the problems of the larger world around them. But the issues surrounding these Games are so distressing that going along to get along is, in itself, a form of complicity.

More than a million Uyghurs are believed to have been detained by the Chinese government, placed in detention centers and forced into slave labor. Women have reportedly been sterilized and forced to have abortions to limit the future Uyghur population.

China also has moved to strip residents of Hong Kong of their democratic freedoms, and encroached on the borders of Taiwan.

These are horrors worthy of condemnation, and the USOPC needs to make it clear to the world that its athletes are both free to do so and will have its full backing if they do.

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But it seems the USOPC would rather get through these next two weeks with as little drama as possible.

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The Biden administration recognized, rightly, that asking the USOPC to boycott these Games would be unfair to the athletes. Instead, the United States refused to send a diplomatic delegation to the Beijing Olympics.

Several other Western nations joined the boycott.

“We think things have sorted themselves out appropriately,” said Susanne Lyons, chair of the USOPC board. “We were very opposed to having the athletes bear the burden of trying to send the message the government wanted to send.

“We think the athletes should be able to do what they do best, which is come together with other athletes from around the world in a demonstration of peace and harmony.”.

Of course it’s easier for the USOPC to tread lightly at these Games. It’s also weak, and sets a poor example for its athletes.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

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