The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee said Friday that it is preparing athletes and officials for a 2022 Beijing Winter Games "unlike any other" amid continuing coronavirus concerns and criticism of China's human rights record.
Almost 300 US athletes to take part
Acknowledging "logistical complexities" and "political discussions that we know will continue," USOPC chief executive Sarah Hirshland said the United States will send about 230 athletes to the Olympics and another 65 to the Paralympic Games in Beijing in February.
"We know these games will be unlike any other," Hirshland said on a conference call Friday after a USOPC board meeting in Salt Lake City.
She said the USOPC's pre-Games briefing of athletes will include ample information on COVID-19 as well as Chinese law for athletes who might want to speak out on political issues.
"What's really important to us, and where we feel we have a very strong sense of duty and obligation is to educate and provide the delegation with ample information and clarity around both the rules and the laws, in this case, the laws of the country where we're going, also the rules of the IOC, the jurisdiction of the event itself," Hirshland said, noting that the laws of China "clearly, are distinct and different than those in the United States.”
"It's our duty and obligation to ensure athletes understand what that means, and that the expectation is that we abide by the laws of that country,” she said.
'Play the price'
China reacted to a U.S.-backed diplomatic boycott of the Games by warning Western nations who joined in it they would "pay the price."
Hirshland said the USOPC "have a very high degree of confidence in the safety and security plans that are put in place" for American Olympians in China.
Washington unveiled its decision not to send a diplomatic delegation earlier this month, saying it was prompted by widespread rights abuses by China and what it sees as a "genocide" against the Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang.
Concerns have also been raised in the sports world over tennis player Peng Shuai, a former world number one doubles player who made sexual assault accusations on social media against a former top Communist Party politician.
She wasn't heard from for almost three weeks and the Women's Tennis Association has suspended tournaments in China saying her video call with IOC president Thomas Bach was not sufficient to quell concerns over her well-being.
USOPC chair Susanne Lyons said the Peng affair was a "sad situation" and one that hit close to home for an organization that was found to have failed to act on allegations of abuse against former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting athletes while working at USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University.
"One of the most important lessons that we at the USOPC have learned over the past years is not only to listen to the stories of survivors but to protect them," she said.
Beijing Olympians will also have to grapple with stringent measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, just as athletes at the Summer Games in Tokyo did earlier this year.
The USOPC said in September that it would require COVID-19 vaccines for U.S. athletes, but Hirshland said Friday that booster shots would not be mandated.
"We have already encouraged many in our community to get the boosters, following the CSC guidance," she said. "We will absolutely continue to do that."
But she said boosters wouldn't be required since some in the delegation may not yet be due for them based on when they received their original vaccinations.