Australia announced on Thursday that it would withdraw its ambassadorial delegation from the Beijing Winter Olympics, becoming the fourth country to cancel its support for the Games. But Australia’s diplomatic outlet for the games, the Australian Olympic Committee, said it would continue to send teams to the Olympics.
“The Australian Olympic Committee strongly supports the athlete’s right to boycott a sporting event or competition and we urge governments to support athletes and their choice to do so,” John Coates, president of the Australian Olympic Committee, said in a statement. “However, in the case of the Olympics our policies are very different. It is important to uphold the principle of non-discrimination and support athletes of all nationalities competing under the Australian flag.”
U.S. officials had earlier this week said that they would not send a delegation to the 2022 Games due to China’s persecution of Christian and Falun Gong groups. Canada had announced earlier this month that it would not send athletes to the games, citing human rights concerns. However, Canada did send an official delegation to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Sydney was set to host the 2022 Winter Olympics before Oslo withdrew in 2014 amid pressure from a petition signed by thousands of Australian citizens and a boycott by Australian lawmakers. Beijing announced that it would bid on the Games in 2016, a victory that was quickly met with protests from many of Australia’s strongest human rights advocates. China has been criticized, among other things, for its decision to deport to North Korea a Korean man who claimed he was tortured and sexually assaulted by Chinese police officers while in detention there. Thousands of Uighurs, another Muslim minority, are interned in a camp in northwestern China in an effort to rid China of extremism. Human rights groups say the crackdown in Xinjiang has left up to 1 million ethnic Uighurs prisoners without access to religious and political freedoms.
The decision by Australia to withdraw its support for the 2022 Winter Olympics was questioned by some. “This decision is not entirely surprising, given what has come to light about Chinese behavior over the last year,” Bob Hawke, a former Australian prime minister, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “But that does not detract from the fact that the Chinese did win a great deal of goodwill with the staging of the Beijing Olympics.”
Aside from Australia and the U.S., Norway, Austria and Slovakia, have also pulled out of the games. China has vowed to treat the withdrawal by Western countries as an act of disrespect for the games and said that Australians did not understand the Olympics.
“We hope the partners that have withdrawn will learn the concept of the Olympic spirit, and the joy of competing, and honor the friendly and cooperative relations between China and all the other countries which participate in the Olympic Games,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
The Xinjiang “re-education” camp and the overall debate over whether the Games should be held in China dominated the Australian government’s first year in office. In the wake of the Beijing protests, the current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, told an inquiry into human rights conditions in the country that he supported sending athletes to the Games.
“Of course we need to provide support to the athletes and give them the moral boost, because of course that’s the right thing to do,” Morrison said. “I’ve discussed that possibility with the prime minister (and) as a sporting nation we’re in the business of being disciplined competitors at these competitions, but also being courageous competitors at these competitions, and I think we can balance the two out very well.”
In February, Australia’s Liberal Party pledged support for the 2022 Games. But on Thursday, the government finally changed its mind. “After careful consideration and consideration of the facts around these athletes’ rights, these countries’ response to their athletes’ complaints, our foreign policy position, and the impact on people’s rights around the world … we think they’ve made the right decision,” Morrison said.
This article originally appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.
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