After a morning training session at the Big Air Shougang site of the Winter Olympics, British snowboarder Katie Ormerod stopped by the press area for a brief interview. It wasn’t how much airtime she got or what tricks she was trying to pull off.
“I’ve been asked so many questions about climate change around the Olympics,” said Ormerod, one of many winter sports athletes turned climate activists. “Especially because obviously there is so much artificial snow that is used for these Games.”
Athletes everywhere are throwing their support behind political and social causes, part of a wave of sports activism that has flourished in the years since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during games to protest police brutality against black people.
The Olympics are no exception, even here in Beijing, where pro-democracy protests were violently suppressed by the government in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and where nearly all forms of civil disobedience are frowned upon.
In perhaps the most timely example of activism at these Games, Ukrainian skeleton racer Vladyslav Heraskevych flashed a sign with his country’s flag and the message “No war in Ukraine”, a reference to strengthening Russia’s military which raised fears of a military conflict.
“I am fighting for peace,” said Heraskevych, adding that he had planned ahead of the Olympics to “show my position to the world.”
“We see this everywhere in sports where athletes are increasingly involved,” said Noah Hoffman, a former US Olympic skier and board member of Global Athlete, an advocacy group. “And yes, I think it will only continue to grow.”
Protests have long been restricted by the International Olympic Committee, but last year the rules were relaxed to allow limited Games activism inside the playing field.
At last year’s Summer Games in Tokyo, soccer players took a knee as a sign of the fight against racism.
Elsewhere, Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka and Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton have publicly supported the Black Lives Matter movement. Osaka has also spoken out about her mental health struggles, as has US Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter Freedom has drawn attention to the plight of Tibetans and Uighurs in China.
Protests on the Olympic podium are still prohibited. This means the possibility of a repeat of the black gloved fist raised by American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Olympics is unlikely. At the time, this got them expelled from the Olympic Village and suspended by the IOC.
In Beijing, athlete activism has been muted over fears about what China’s communist leaders might do to stifle criticism of the country’s human rights record.
A Beijing Organizing Committee official warned ahead of the Games that: “Any behavior or speech contrary to the Olympic spirit, especially Chinese laws and regulations, is also subject to certain penalties.”
Rights groups have responded by advising athletes to keep quiet while in China, citing the disappearance of tennis player Peng Shuai as a warning after accusing a former high-ranking Communist Party member of sexual assault. Peng has since reappeared, saying her accusation was misinterpreted and that she was seen attending Olympic events last week in Beijing.
German luge player Natalie Geisenberger said she wondered if she should attend due to concerns such as human rights.
Hoffman, who was on the U.S. Olympic cross-country ski teams in 2014 and 2018, has been in touch with a current member who holds back outspoken views on political issues until they get home, “because it’s not worth just not the risk”.
“When athletes are told to get rental cell phones and computers, they know that’s not normal,” Hoffman said. “They were told they would have no privacy and anything they said would be monitored. So of course they don’t talk and that’s terrifying.
Many Olympians are reluctant to support more controversial issues because, as amateurs, they lack financial stability and are vulnerable to the dictates of sports administrators, including the IOC, Hoffman said.
Climate activism may be the exception and is more naturally suited to snowboarders and skiers who are concerned about the impact of warmer winters on their sport.
This year’s setting, in China’s arid capital where organizers have spent months making artificial snow, has heightened concerns about the future viability of the Winter Games.
Ormerod has spoken out about the effects of climate change on snowboarding, as has Finnish snowboarder Enni Rukajarvi.
“I hope other athletes will also use their voices,” said Rukajarvi, who won silver at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. She is a long-time climate activist who has campaigned for resorts Finnish ski resorts use renewable electricity. “I feel like when I’m an athlete, I have to do something good.”
Dozens of athletes competing in Beijing, from the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan, worked on climate issues in coordination with Protect Our Winters, an athlete-led environmental group.
The goal is to use their platform to rally support for political change by electing supportive lawmakers and officials, said founder Jeremy Jones, a renowned snowboarder.
Taylor Gold, who finished fifth in the halfpipe competition, told the AP in December that “trying to do things on an individual level is great,” like carpooling and bicycling instead of driving, or to eat less meat. “But at the end of the day, we really need systemic change to have the impact we need to preserve these places” threatened by global warming.
Some athletes work at the grassroots level.
Paul Schommer, a member of the US biathlon team and a chemistry graduate, lectured on the science of climate change to school children in his hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin.
“Climate change is not something that is always talked about in my hometown,” Schommer said. “And so to be able to go home and talk a little more with the students, there’s something I’ve done in the past that’s been pretty cool.”
Associated Press video journalist Brittany Peterson contributed to this report from Copper Mountain, Colorado.
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