Activists interrupt torch-lighting ceremony calling for 2022 Beijing Olympics boycott

·4 min read

Human rights activists called for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics during the traditional torch-lighting ceremony at Ancient Olympia in Athens, Greece, on Monday.  

Three activists were able to sneak past a police barrier to enter the archaeological site of the ancient Greek stadium and temples to unfurl a banner and wave flags, Reuters reported. Four others were detained by police outside the stadium an hour before the ceremony began and two more were arrested in Athens on Sunday after protesting at the Acropolis monument. 

The activists are part of the No Beijing 2022 campaign and are calling for a boycott over China's human rights record. Rights groups and U.S. lawmakers have also called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to postpone the 2022 Winter Games and relocate them unless China ends what the United States has called genocide and crimes against humanity in its dealing of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. 

The Beijing Olympics are set to begin Feb. 4. 

Activists unfurl 'No Genocide Games' banner

Beijing protesters
A police officer moves toward three protesters holding a banner and the Tibetan flag as they crash the start of the flame lighting ceremony for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at the Ancient Olympia archeological site, birthplace of the ancient Olympics in southern Greece on Oct. 18, 2021. (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Two women and a man broke into the ancient Greek stadium and temple where the Olympic flame is lit every two years. It had been sealed off for days in the lead-up to the ceremony, per Reuters. 

The trio held up a Tibetan flag after the torch was lit and shouted for a boycott. They also held a banner with red handprints on it that read "No Genocide Games."

Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou and IOC President Thomas Bach were in attendance, but looked on as the protest occurred. The ceremony was not interrupted and the protesters were quickly led away by police. 

Similar protests happened ahead of the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. The city will become the first to host a summer and winter Olympics. 

The group of four activists who were detained ahead of the ceremony did not protest or unfurl banners, a spokesperson for the group told Reuters. They are all part of Students for a Free Tibet, which posted photos and updates from the morning on Twitter. 

Activists are planning more protests and a news conference on Tuesday. The flame will be officially handed over to Beijing Games organizers in Athens on that day. 

Greek Olympic Committee, IOC comments

Greece's Olympic Committee (HOC) released a statement to Reuters saying it was disappointed the ceremony was used "by a few individuals for other purposes." 

"The lighting of the Olympic flame represents 3000 years of Greek history and a commitment to peace and dialogue," the HOC said.

"While the HOC respects individual rights to freedom of expression, it is disappointing that this traditional cultural event has been used by a few individuals for other purposes."

The IOC refereed to the above statement when asked for comment by Reuters. Bach did deliver an address while inside the stadium, and prior to the protests. 

"The Olympic Games cannot address all the challenges in our world," Bach said, via Reuters.

"But they set an example for a world where everyone respects the same rules and one another. They inspire us to solve problems in friendship and solidarity."

IOC spokesperson Juan Antonio Samaranch addressed ongoing controversy on Sunday after activists gathered in Athens. Via Reuters:

"Everybody has the right, is entitled to their ideas, their positions and their principles. What I have to say is we cannot comment on those protests. There were some protests today in Athens. We cannot comment on those things. We are here in ancient Olympia for a very important thing which is getting everybody together from all parts of the world."

Beijing Olympics controversy 

The selection of Beijing for the Games has been controversial since they were first in the pool of consideration. The United States is among a group of countries that have accused China of committing genocide against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region of the country. 

Beijing has denied the charges. 

There are also concerns by rights groups over Beijing's repression in Tibet and a crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong. The issue in Hong Kong came to the forefront of American sports in the fall of 2019 when then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the protesters.  

Rights groups have argued that countries participating in the Beijing Olympics could be seen as "an endorsement of the Chinese Community Party's authoritarian rule," per an open letter to governments around the world. 

Boycotts have happened before at the Olympics, namely in 1976, 1984 and 1988. Experts believe a boycott likely won't work, per the Council on Foreign Relations, but there are alternatives.

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