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China's politics — not sports — spill out during heated Olympic news conference

The Olympic Rings logo is seen on the top of a tower as the sun rises on February 7, 2022 at the Beijing Winter Olympics.
David Ramos
Getty Images
The Olympic Rings logo is seen on the top of a tower as the sun rises on February 7, 2022 at the Beijing Winter Olympics.

BEIJING – Sports and politics collided in an incendiary display today during a routine press conference at the Olympic Games in Beijing, despite assurances the Games are supposed to remain apolitical.

A journalist asked during a routine press conference Thursday about whether Taiwan's Olympic team would appear at the closing ceremony. (The team, which competes under the name of Chinese Taipei, said in a statement that Olympic officials will require them to show up.)

Yan Jiarong, a Beijing Olympic spokesperson, used the question to muscle in China's controversial political position that Taiwan is Chinese territory.

"What I want to say is that there is only one China in the world. Taiwan is an indivisible part of China," said Yan Jiarong, a spokesperson with Beijing's organizing committee for the Olympic Games and a former Chinese representative to the United Nations.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is painstakingly clear that the Games should stay politically neutral. Its rules forbid anyone, including athletes and government officials, from making political actions on Olympic premises. In the run-up to the Summer Games in Tokyo last year, the IOC further clarified this rule to allow individual opinions to be aired during press conferences and interviews.

This year's Winter Games in Beijing, which are taking place amid a backdrop of diplomatic boycotts over numerous allegations of human rights abuses in China, had once again raised the specter of athletic activism.

China's Olympic organizers warned that "any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment." Human rights activists cautioned athletes to refrain from making political speech while in China and to wait until they are back home instead.

That has not stopped journalists from repeatedly asking pointed political questions during routine Games press conferences.

During Thursday's press conference, another journalist queried the IOC about its uniforms sponsor, China's Anta, which sources some products from Xinjiang, the region where China has widely detained mostly ethnic minorities like the Uyghurs and sent some of those detained to labor in factories. Could the IOC prove its uniforms hadn't been made with forced labor?

"I think these questions are very based on lies. Some authorities have already disputed such false information with a lot of solid evidence," said Yan, the Beijing Olympic official.

This is a line that Chinese officials have used during state press conferences to push back on copious reporting, global investigations, and China's own stated policies that all show it arrested or detained hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs with no due process starting in 2017.

This time, that line got an international audience, as Ms. Yan held forth on Olympic grounds, showing that despite the IOC's best efforts, sports and politics do mix, perhaps inevitably.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.