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Olympic officials avoided direct answers when asked about China's human rights issue

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Olympics pride themselves on uniting the world in sport. We got a glimpse this week, though, of how contentious the next games might be. Four countries, including the U.S., announced diplomatic boycotts of the upcoming Beijing Winter Games because of the Chinese government's documented human rights violations. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach was an Olympic fencer, and it seemed fitting this week as he parried with reporters in two virtual press conferences after IOC meetings. Bach was asked if he's worried about the diplomatic boycotts. No, he said. Those are political decisions and..

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THOMAS BACH: The principle of political neutrality of the IOC applies.

GOLDMAN: He was asked how he'd describe the human rights situation in China right now. The U.S. government and others have labeled as cultural genocide the treatment of China's Uyghur minority. There are reported violations against Tibetans and Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrators as well. Bach answered the human rights question by saying the IOC's responsibility is to ensure everything related to the Olympic Games is fully respected.

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BACH: This includes respect for human rights of all the participants. This includes freedom of press, as you know, and a number of other issues.

GOLDMAN: Bach said the words human rights, but only as they apply to those taking part in the games, the athletes and officials in our remit, as the IOC likes to say. The two days of press conferences ended with the IOC drawing a clear line between February's Olympics and the politics beyond the games. Olympic historian John Macaloon (ph) says it's a dangerous line to draw on casting human rights as a political matter.

JOHN MACALOON: You cannot compromise on genocide and still claim to be a movement in service of human dignity.

GOLDMAN: Macaloon, a University of Chicago professor, has researched the IOC and Olympic Movement for roughly four decades. He says there was a time when the IOC didn't compromise, when it led a ban of South African sport during that country's era of racial segregation.

MACALOON: The IOC has been extremely proud of its role in the defeat of apartheid in South Africa, and at that time, it made a distinction between politics and crimes against humanity.

GOLDMAN: Macaloon says the IOC had to make what he calls a devil's bargain in 2015 when it chose Beijing to host next year's games over Kazakhstan, another country with human rights issues. Now the IOC has to deliver the Chinese Winter Games, but at what cost? So far, not much. Olympic sponsors and athletes largely are silent. The IOC has dismissed the diplomatic boycotts as political matters, although Macaloon notes with interest China's strong response. A Foreign Ministry spokesman promised resolute countermeasures to the U.S. boycott, but no details on what those might be, with just 57 days until the opening ceremony.

Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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