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Political Balancing Act Leaves China’s Sports Industry Wobbling

The invasion of Ukraine worsens post-Olympic troubles.

By , the author of Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View on China’s Quest to Be the Best.
Police officers pose for photos.
Police officers pose for photos.
Police officers pose for photos after doing duty for the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympics Torch Relay in Beijing on March 2. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Toward the end of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, Mark Adams, International Olympic Committee (IOC) spokesperson, was asked three times about Xinjiang or Taiwan at a press conference. He responded with typically bland answers, leaving journalists with little to go on. But Yan Jiarong, one of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee’s spokespersons, supplemented all three of Adams’s comments with scripted—and feisty—remarks of her own, which later drew a rare rebuke from the IOC. The episode was enough to end all arguments over whether these Games were at least partly political in nature.

But it also overshadowed another notable moment. Sitting between Yan and Adams was a young lady named Wei Yining, a volunteer who informed the assembled press corps that she and her fellow employees loved volunteering so much that they had united to inspire one another. “I hope the warmth from all the volunteers here can stay with you all the time,” she said. “And together, with this unforgettable experience, we can head toward the future.” Domestic journalists happily asked her softball questions to prompt these answers, but when asked about her thoughts on tennis player Peng Shuai by an international reporter, Wei was less effusive, saying she didn’t know about it.

The prelude to the 2022 Beijing Olympics was the most political in decades; the aftermath seems even more so. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine started just days after the Olympics finished, raising suspicions over a tacit deal on timing. As the week started, Russia had already been excluded from international soccer by FIFA, kicked out of international ice hockey tournaments, and sanctioned by the IOC for violating the Olympic Truce. All this leaves China in an awkward position, as it’s often been put in regarding Ukraine. Two of the five non-Russian teams in the Kontinental Hockey League have already severed ties with the league for this season and possibly the future—putting pressure on China’s Kunlun Red Star (KRS) to follow suit. That seems highly unlikely given the fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin personally endorsed the club’s launch in 2016.

Toward the end of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, Mark Adams, International Olympic Committee (IOC) spokesperson, was asked three times about Xinjiang or Taiwan at a press conference. He responded with typically bland answers, leaving journalists with little to go on. But Yan Jiarong, one of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee’s spokespersons, supplemented all three of Adams’s comments with scripted—and feisty—remarks of her own, which later drew a rare rebuke from the IOC. The episode was enough to end all arguments over whether these Games were at least partly political in nature.

But it also overshadowed another notable moment. Sitting between Yan and Adams was a young lady named Wei Yining, a volunteer who informed the assembled press corps that she and her fellow employees loved volunteering so much that they had united to inspire one another. “I hope the warmth from all the volunteers here can stay with you all the time,” she said. “And together, with this unforgettable experience, we can head toward the future.” Domestic journalists happily asked her softball questions to prompt these answers, but when asked about her thoughts on tennis player Peng Shuai by an international reporter, Wei was less effusive, saying she didn’t know about it.

The prelude to the 2022 Beijing Olympics was the most political in decades; the aftermath seems even more so. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine started just days after the Olympics finished, raising suspicions over a tacit deal on timing. As the week started, Russia had already been excluded from international soccer by FIFA, kicked out of international ice hockey tournaments, and sanctioned by the IOC for violating the Olympic Truce. All this leaves China in an awkward position, as it’s often been put in regarding Ukraine. Two of the five non-Russian teams in the Kontinental Hockey League have already severed ties with the league for this season and possibly the future—putting pressure on China’s Kunlun Red Star (KRS) to follow suit. That seems highly unlikely given the fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin personally endorsed the club’s launch in 2016.

But these days, you have to pick a side, and China’s fence-sitting position feels increasingly untenable.  If, for example, Kazakhstan’s Barys Nur-Sultan team joins Finland’s Jokerit and Latvia’s Dinamo Riga in jettisoning the KHL, the KRS would either have to do the same or align itself with Belarusian team Dinamo Minsk and the rest of Putin’s league. A noninterference policy of silence simply won’t cut it, especially when China is positioning itself as global leader.

By siding with Russia—whether deliberately or by default—China will be tarred with the same brush that’s now being used to universally condemn Moscow. Meanwhile, the KRS women’s team continues to play in the Russian women’s league; what if one of its Finnish, Swedish, Czech, Canadian, or American players takes to social media to express discomfort at that decision?

Sports leagues and teams have increasing experience of what it’s like when one of their players or executives comments on something deemed sensitive by the Chinese government. A swiftly deleted tweet about protests in Hong Kong by then-Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey in October 2019 continues to haunt the NBA’s business in China: State broadcaster CCTV has shown just two games since then while online streaming platform Tencent, the league’s other main partner, shows Rockets games but not those of the Philadelphia 76ers, where Morey now works.

An added wrinkle for the NBA came in the form of player Enes Kanter—now known as Enes Kanter Freedom—who has been very outspoken against the Chinese government. That immediately plunged the Boston Celtics into hot water, though Freedom has since been traded and, later, waived. His fading play certainly didn’t help his contract status, deteriorating from starter to bench player in recent years, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that his activism contributed in part to his forced retirement.

Two months after Morey’s ill-fated tweet, German soccer player Mesut Özil, who played for English Premier League (EPL) club Arsenal at the time, called out fellow Muslims for not speaking up about China’s treatment of its Uyghur population. That promptly drew NBA treatment, with Arsenal games banished from Chinese broadcasts.

All of this comes with real costs for China when it comes to being seen as a destination for sports investment. Today, the conversation among EPL executives is about a pivot from China to India. As Freedom and Özil have shown, it has become all too easy to push China’s buttons, and backlash can wipe out years of investment virtually overnight. That, increasingly, is not a risk leagues are prepared to take, especially when they are at the mercy of their players’ social media accounts. India is far less lucrative than China but doesn’t have the same potential to blow up in your face.

Meanwhile, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) also seems destined to pivot away from China, where no fewer than 10 tournaments were scheduled before COVID-19 uprooted its calendar. Although China’s pandemic restrictions will ensure that international tennis tournaments won’t return anytime soon, the WTA currently stands at an impasse with the country it was so embedded with just two years ago due to Peng’s social media post on sexual assault accusations and the continued absence of an investigation. The men’s ATP Tour has announced four tournaments for China this year, but a combination of COVID-19 and backlash from male players standing in solidarity with their female counterparts will almost certainly see those tournaments scrapped.

Chinese officials have a notoriously thin skin and haven’t yet shown any ability to tolerate criticism. The official view within China seems to be that foreign media is becoming hostile to China, but with fewer journalists on the ground, the simpler answer is the authorities also understand actual journalism less and less. The fact that foreign media inside the Olympic bubble didn’t solely concentrate on mascot Bing Dwen Dwen, the selflessness of volunteers, and warm and fuzzy sporting moments genuinely seemed to come as a surprise to Chinese officials.

But relentless positive coverage, as is demanded now more than ever, has damaging effects—whether for the sports industry or elsewhere. The omnipresent line, for example, that China has had more than 346 million people participate in winter sports—a meaningless statistic in the absence of what a participant actually is—gives a skewed impression of the state of the industry.

Asking tougher questions or calling out nonsense, however, doesn’t necessarily mean hostility. One of the dozens of foreign coaches embedded within the Chinese Olympic team spoke of the challenges he encountered but also of the real bond he formed with many of the Chinese athletes. “I consider myself a friend of China,” he told me. “But friends also speak up—at least, they do where I come from.”

Almost unnoticed in the wake of the Ukraine conflict was the fact that Swedish speed skater Nils van der Poel flew to Cambridge, England, to give one of his two Olympic gold medals to Angela Gui, the daughter of publisher Gui Minhai, who is two years into a 10-year prison term in China. It was reminiscent of the Nobel Committee awarding the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to writer Liu Xiaobo, a decision that saw Norway blacklisted by China for years. No one would be shocked if Sweden was similarly shunned for van der Poel’s decision.

But China needs friends in the global community now more than ever. With the pandemic having decimated China’s soccer and basketball leagues, each held without fans in monthslong bubbles, the domestic sports market is a shell of what it was just a few years ago. Unlike its movie market, which continues to thrive without Hollywood, China’s sports industry and its fans are desperate for foreign input.

The 2022 Olympics pushed China further toward center stage on the global podium, both politically and from a sporting perspective. But with the rest of the sports world now unafraid to tackle geopolitical issues coupled with China’s inability to show nuance as it handles these matters, the sports world may increasingly decide that China’s lucrative market is not worth the trouble.

Mark Dreyer is the author of Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View on China’s Quest to Be the Best.

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