Athletes shouldn’t be forced to boycott Beijing Games, but they should feel free to speak out, says Bruce Kidd

The Current

Olympians have the power to make change, but shouldn’t be required to, says former track star

The possibility of boycotting or pushing for the relocation of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics has been raised by some of the leaders of Canadian political parties. (Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

Former track star Bruce Kidd says being an athlete gave him a voice he never would’ve had otherwise, but he says athletes shouldn’t feel forced to use that voice.

The Beijing Olympics are just five months away, and some human rights groups have called for a full boycott of the Games over alleged human rights abuses by Chinese authorities.

But Kidd says that isn’t fair.

“Athletes are being asked not to go, while every other sphere of society continues to engage in China in some way,” Kidd told The Current’s Matt Galloway.

“The amount of Canadian trade with China has gone up in the last two years. The extent of our universities accepting Chinese graduate students has not been curtailed. So I think athletes are saying we can’t be the only ones who are carrying that message for it.”

The Switzerland-based International Olympic Committee (IOC) has declined several recent calls to move the Olympics out of Beijing. China is accused by some foreign governments and researchers of imposing forced labour, systematic forced birth control and torture upon Uyghurs, a largely Muslim ethnic group Xinjiang, a region in the country’s west.

During the federal election campaign, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said Canada should consider a boycott of the Games in Beijing, citing concerns for a handful of Canadians being held in China — one of whom faces a death sentence.

Since then, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, arguably the most high-profile Canadian detainees, have been released from Chinese custody.

Bruce Kidd crosses the finish line to win a race in Philadelphia in this 1963 file photo. (The Canadian Press)

In the 1960s, Kidd was a Canadian track and field star. He was a national champion, Commonwealth Games medallist, and an Olympian. Kidd is also a professor of sport and public policy at the University of Toronto, and author of the new book A Runner’s Journey.

Kidd says if an athlete still wants to attend the Olympics, but also wants to advocate for human rights, there is another option.

“Athletes have become much more active and stood forth to powerfully communicate progressive messages and really force companies and force leagues to change,” said Kidd.

“There are lots of things that sport can’t change, but sports and athletes and leagues and the Olympics can get out powerful, progressive messages. I have no doubt about that.”

Kidd says that if people only ever visited, or competed in countries that they completely agreed with, no one would be able to compete or visit anywhere.

“Would you go to Texas to compete right now with the anti-abortion law on the books?” said Kidd.

“If we listed the concerns we have about other countries and if other countries listed their concerns about Canada, we would not probably have the kind of international competition we have today.”

Using the platform

Kidd has experienced the power of sport first hand. When he went to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, he’d encounter people from Japan, who would plead with him to use his platform.

“They would bow and they would move their hands together and they would say, ‘no more Hiroshima. As a sports person, please, please speak to the world powers to stop, to end the crisis of another nuclear bomb,'” said Kidd.

“That was really, really powerful.”

As an athlete, Kidd said he tried to promote independence and self-expression, and he tried to share that with other athletes on the world stage.

Visitors are seen next to a sculpture featuring skates outside the headquarters of Beijing Organising Committee for the Beijing 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing on July 30, 2021. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)

But Kidd said the responsibility isn’t all on the athletes. He says it’s important the IOC supports the athletes.

“Athletes and other Olympic guests should go with the full protection of the IOC to engage in real, honest dialogue with the Chinese about our concerns about the treatment of minority populations,” said Kidd.