Olympian Noah Hoffman advises athletes to keep quiet at Winter Olympics

Aspen’s Noah Hoffman, who competed in the Olympics in cross-country skiing, poses for a photo in March 2018 after announcing his retirement from the sport.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

VAIL — Two-time Olympian Noah Hoffman’s life is busier now than it ever was during his 10-year career on the U.S. Nordic Ski Team. The future Brown graduate – he will have an economics degree by May – has been involved in athlete activism since retiring in 2018.

Hoffman, who grew up in Aspen, started out in the world of anti-doping before becoming a founding board member of Global Athlete, an organization that seeks to hold sports governing bodies such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC). and the International Ski Federation (FIS) indebted. Striving to raise the voice of athletes and give his former peers a proper place at the table, he finds himself at the forefront of another Olympics.

At a Human Rights Watch roundtable last week, he spoke out against the IOC’s lack of accountability for the Beijing Games. The oppression of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region, along with the communist government’s actions in Tibet and Hong Kong, its general intolerance of dissent, and the recent fate of Peng Shuai have all fueled a diplomatic boycott of the Games by the government. the United States. The IOC has not said whether it will protect athletes who speak out against human rights abuses, leaving them at the mercy of the Chinese state. Canada, Britain and other countries also joined the diplomatic boycott.

“Rule 50 and its restriction on athletes’ free speech aligns exceptionally well with the CCP’s social repression and athletes should be furious that their host and governing body seek to limit their voice,” the activist said. human rights and lawyer Craig Foster. South China Morning Post.

“Chinese government officials and diplomats have confirmed that athletes are being silenced and threatened with draconian sanctions in Beijing simply if they speak out against the genocide.”

In a 45 minute podcast with the Vail Daily, Hoffman explained the vagueness of a senior Beijing organizing committee official’s statement about punishment for speaking out against the government.

“Chinese law, when it comes to what kind of speech is allowed, especially speech critical of the Chinese state, is very opaque. It is not at all clear what kind of talk she is talking about,” he said.

Because of this, Hoffman goes against his nature, advising athletes – many of whom are friends and former teammates – to keep quiet.

“Believe me, I think the voice of athletes is extremely valuable, not just for the athletes, but for society at large,” he said. “That’s what makes athletics so valuable to me. That’s why I’m still involved in sports. Because I believe in the power of athletes to truly transcend sport and be defining role models in society. And so it kills me to tell the athletes that they have to be quiet, that they must not speak. But if I went to these Games, I would shut my mouth, because I don’t believe athletes will be safe if they speak out about China issues, human rights issues or related issues. to the IOC at this point.”

Yaqiu Wang, China researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the disappearance of tennis player Peng Shuai was “a good indicator of what could possibly happen” if the athletes spoke out.

Aspen’s Noah Hoffman poses before the start of the 2016-17 World Cup cross-country ski season in November 2016 at Wagner Park in downtown Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Hoffman, host of The Global Athlete podcast, devoted an entire episode to Shuai’s case, explaining how the tennis star spoke out against an elite Communist Party official over the sexual abuse she suffered at his hands. She then immediately disappeared, and Peng’s surname was erased from the Internet, as was the search term “tennis.”

“It’s crazy,” Hoffman said of the case. “And then the IOC comes in and says, ‘Nothing to do here, we’re not even going to mention the sexual assault allegations. Instead, we’re going to work with the Communist Party in China to hold a press conference to show that Peng is fine, even though it’s very clear to people who study these things and people who have experienced these disappearances, that the press conference and public statements were all staged, they were all under the influence of the Chinese Communist Party.

“They (the IOC) are working with the Chinese Communist Party to cover up this story of an Olympic athlete to repeat the Communist Party line. It is simply amazing how little accountability they have shown to the athletes and how much they are willing to pay for the CCP.

Hoffman believes Global Athlete’s work gets to the root of the problem.

“What I’m trying to do is bring the conversation back to why are athletes in this position where they can’t speak out, where they’re being asked not to attend the Games, where the US government decided not to go?

“So I’m trying to distract from all of these consequences – should athletes talk, should athletes boycott, should governments boycott – and say, it all comes down to the IOC’s lack of engagement. human rights and lack of commitment to athletes and lack of accountability.

Part of the problem, according to Hoffman, stems from how athletes are organized within the sports administrations under which they compete.

“The IOC Athletes’ Commission is really part of the administration of the IOC,” he explained.

“Same with the WADA Athletes’ Committee. Same with the FIS Athletes’ Committee. Same even in this country – there’s a bit of independence now between the USOPC Athletes’ Committee and the USOPC organization, but not much. There is no independence. If your representatives are part of the administration that you are trying to hold accountable, you can never really hold the administration accountable.

Trying to reconcile the views of 208 different countries on how unions should operate exacerbates the problem.

“The diversity of the Olympic Movement is a huge barrier to organizing athletes in a way that resembles what you see in Major League Baseball, the NFL, or the NHL,” Hoffman explained. “But at Global Athlete, we believe that at least we can try to be an independent organization.”

Hoffman suggests a three-pronged pressure approach to put on the Beijing organizers and the IOC.

First, it underscores the larger question of how the Games were awarded to China – or any nation with a documented history of human rights abuses – in the first place.

“At the very least, athletes should have a say. It should be a negotiation between the athletes and the IOC on the allocation of the Games,” Hoffman explained.

Instead of embodying the unifying symbols of Olympism, encouraging nations to apply through a public bidding process that promotes and prioritizes human rights, the IOC has become less transparent , according to Hoffman. As a result, authoritarian governments are the only countries capable of coping with the enormous financial burden of the bid process, which they are motivated to do.

“We would like to see accountability and transparency in the bidding process and demand that they actually make the Games beneficial to the host countries so that the countries want to host the Games so that there is not this huge cost that only authoritarian regimes that are able to use the Games to their political advantage are ready to pass,” Hoffman argued.

Aspen’s Noah Hoffman competes in the 2019 Aspen Backcountry Marathon, which he won.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

He would also like to see the international declaration of human rights integrated into the framework of the IOC.

“For example, the international human right of freedom of expression is enshrined in the IOC so every host city, including China – if that’s where the Games are going to be held – must respect freedom of expression. athletes, rather than what is happening now, which says that any athlete who speaks out against Chinese laws, no matter how opaque they are and no matter how much they violate an athlete’s freedom of expression, will be liable to penalties.

Finally, Hoffman believes that athlete safety must be ensured.

“We are going to protect the athletes and we are going to make sure, wherever the Olympics take place, that the athletes have the right to defend the values ​​they believe in,” he told the IOC.

“They have the right to stand up for human rights, they have the right to stand up for human dignity, they have to speak out against racism, genocide – speak out against any social issue they believe in. Because athletes have a right to freedom from expression, to use their platform, like everyone else does.

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Naomi C. Amerson