Notre Dame experts reflect on aspects of the Olympics, from athletic performance to human rights violations

Author: Notre Dame News

ND Experts

Richard Sheehan

Richard Sheehan

Mendoza College of Business

The 2022 Winter Olympics was enveloped in a number of controversies long before the Games even started. In 2021, the U.S. accused China of committing genocide against the Uyghur ethnic group. In what some say was an intentional move on China’s part to show the world it is not guilty of the accusations, it chose a Uyghur athlete to be the final Olympic torchbearer at the opening ceremony. In December, the Biden administration announced a U.S. diplomatic boycott of Beijing 2022 as a result of China’s poor human rights record. Canada, Australia, Britain and India followed suit. Late last year, Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star who has since announced her retirement, wrote a blog post that accused a former high-level Chinese official with whom she had once been in a relationship of pressuring her into sex. She has since said it was a “huge misunderstanding.” 

These issues are in addition to the fact that the event is taking place in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some athletes are speaking out about China’s strict protocols to prevent the spread of the virus and their treatment in quarantine. 

Showmanship at the opening ceremony

Tarryn Chun
Tarryn Chun

Despite the issues, the 2022 Olympic Winter Games began with what Notre Dame Assistant Professor of Film, Television and Theatre Tarryn Chun sees as a lighter aesthetic than the 2008 opening ceremony, but still a show of soft power.  

“The 2022 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony’s embrace of whimsy and romanticized imagery reflects the fact that the PRC (People’s Republic of China) no longer feels a need to ‘prove itself’ to the world,” said Chun, who is researching the intersection of theater, technology and politics in modern China.

Because the Opening Ceremony was helmed by the same artistic director as in 2008, filmmaker Zhang Yimou, many viewers expected a similar scale and aesthetic to Beijing’s previous Olympics spectacle, Chun noted. However, COVID precautions, a new media ecology and political shifts combined to confound those expectations. 

“The relatively small cast and the style of choreography, with performers standing in a long line facing one direction, may have had health and safety rationale, but also mirrored a global, embodied experience of distancing and monitoring air flow,” she said. “Meanwhile, the large-scale moving projections and laser lights are even more technically sophisticated than in 2008, but they read as less innovative and unique in today’s media and screen-saturated environment.” 

The 2008 Opening Ceremony used mass performance and technology to emphasize China’s history, culture and political power, to an overwhelming extreme, Chun said. 

“This time, the artistic segments of the ceremony went in the opposite direction, with equally advanced technology showcasing drifting snowflakes, spring flowers and singing children. It’s a softer approach to soft power, perhaps, but no less transparent, and one that sits even more uneasily alongside the overt politics of Xi Jinping’s regime,” she said. 

Geopolitical context 

Kyle Jaros
Kyle Jaros

Associate Professor of Global Affairs Kyle Jaros sees it differently in the geopolitical context. As final preparations for the Olympics were underway, the very real threat of war loomed with an East vs. West showdown brewing over Ukraine. 

“Notwithstanding the snowflake imagery and ranks of singing children at the opening ceremonies, the 2022 Games are a hard-power Olympics through and through,” Jaros said. “The Games are being held in the context of an escalating geopolitical confrontation between Xi Jinping’s China (and its Russian partners) and the U.S.-led West. And the very holding of the Games has required the Chinese government to engineer alpine ski courses in arid mountains and to police a ‘closed loop’ COVID-19 bubble for tens of thousands of athletes, support staff and media personnel.”

Jaros underscored that, economically, the China on the world stage for the 2022 Winter Olympics is vastly different from the China of the 2008 Summer Olympics. 

“When Beijing held the 2008 Olympics, the construction of mega-projects such as the Bird’s Nest stadium and new subway lines across the city wowed visitors with the prowess of China’s rising economy,” Jaros said. “Today, in a context of crushing infrastructure and real estate-linked debt across China, Olympic megaprojects send a different message. They reflect the determination of the Chinese leadership to stage a picture-perfect Winter Games, but also remind domestic and international audiences of the Chinese economy’s risky reliance on overbuilding.”

Jaros noted that oversupply of residential and commercial real estate and slowing economic growth have caused real estate prices to stagnate or fall in many cities in the last few years, resulting in acute financial stress for real estate developers. Meanwhile, city and provincial governments across China (especially in the north and west) have faced increasing financial pressure as payments come due for the huge infrastructure spending they have undertaken over the past 15 years, and as revenues from land sales shrink amid slowing real estate development.

Human rights violations

Diane Desierto
Diane Desierto

The U.S. diplomatic boycott of Beijing 2022 (along with Canada, Australia, Britain and India) is completely within the rights of the participating countries according to international law, said Professor of Law and Global Affairs Diane Desierto.  

“It’s a permissible but unfriendly act. It sends a message that the participants in the boycott do not want to be complicit in China’s human rights abuses and that these states are holding all parties to account,” said Desierto. “All countries that are party to the Genocide Convention are obliged to prevent genocide. The diplomatic boycott is one way to seek to enforce what states see as their role in enforcing the Genocide Convention regarding the Uyghurs.”

Desierto also cited China’s Zero Covid policy, which has violated a number of human rights treaties as the government ramped up its authoritarian rule in the name of curbing the virus. Athletes have also been speaking out, saying their human rights are being violated in quarantine. Recurring issues regarding Hong Kong, including the infringement of education and academic freedom and the right to self-determination, have made front-page headlines since the Hong Kong democracy protests of 2014. Since the takeover of Tibet more than 70 years ago, the Chinese government has violated Tibetans’ cultural rights, right to education, right to religious worship and right to use their native language.

“None of these are isolated; they are consistent with China’s position that human rights law is to be largely enforced by them, whereas others in the international human rights system in which China operates, need China to participate fully,” Desierto said. “China has tried to broaden or expand the interpretation of human rights to meet their expectations of social controls under an authoritarian government and also the expectations of remedies. That has made it very difficult for China within the international human rights community to justify their various human rights abuses.”

Desierto will further discuss these issues in a webinar at 12:30 p.m. EST Feb. 10. Register to attend the Zoom event “Human Rights with 'Chinese Characteristics'? Relativizing Human Rights by Eliminating Accountability.

Economic effects for advertisers and broadcasters

Richard Sheehan
Richard Sheehan

The economic advantage for competing athletes and networks with broadcast rights for the Olympics is also “bleak,” according to Richard Sheehan, professor emeritus of finance at the Mendoza College of Business.

“Most participants have trained for years and will have only one opportunity to perform before a worldwide audience and, for a lucky few, make an impression and obtain sponsorship deals,” Sheehan said. “Those will likely be substantially reduced after this Olympic Games.”

Some companies, including Coca-Cola, decided not to run Olympics-related global ad campaigns. Western companies that have shelled out millions for licensing deals are pretty much out of luck, Sheehan noted.

“NBC is in about as bad a situation, and their promos have been few and far between,” he said. “NBC has counted on the Olympics to goose their ratings to cover the funds they’ve spent for the rights. They will end up losing a large fraction of their expenditures.”  

Athletic performance and sexism 

Cara Ocobock
Cara Ocobock

One of Assistant Professor of Anthropology Cara Ocobock’s research interests is the anthropology of sport, which is the study of how political, cultural, social and historical aspects affect sport and vice versa. She also studies how humans are affected by extremes — in temperature and performance.

“We all relish in, I think, if not just witnessing what our human bodies — which we sometimes consider to be frail and weak — what we’re actually capable of,” said Ocobock, in a recent interview for the ND Stories podcast. “The strength, and the speed, and the power, and the coordination and all of that. It’s amazing to see on display.”

The Olympics have come a long way, too, in terms of gender representation, but Ocobock, who is also concurrent faculty in the Gender Studies Program, said that both the Games and exercise physiological research have a ways to go.

“There are true differences, though a great deal of variation, between women and men. These may, on average, give men an advantage in strength and power-based activities, and women an advantage in endurance sports,” she wrote in a 2021 article for Sapiens. “Many of the differences we have learned are wrong, while the biologically meaningful differences are often understudied or ignored. That needs to change if we are to banish sexism in sport and take seriously the training and nutrition of female athletes the world over.”