A recent headline on an Associated Press story previewing the World Cup season that kicked off in Austria last month and continues in Finland on Saturday told us “[Mikaela] Shiffrin and China are the two exciting subjects heading into the 2019-20 ski racing season.”
Given the recent experiences of Lebron James and the National Basketball Association in China, where a tweet by a team executive supporting protestors in Hong Kong caused an international incident, the birth of World Cup skiing in China this season should also be a source of dread.
Why? Because the NBA debacle clearly illustrates for American companies, sports leagues and organizations such as the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team the perils of criticizing the Chinese for human rights violations like the escalating crackdown in Hong Kong and the roundup in China’s semi-autonomous region of Xinjiang of ethnic Uighurs and Kazaks.
These organizations can cozy up to the repressive Chinese regime all they want, currying favor and soaking up some of the massive economic potential of a billion-plus Chinese people increasingly eager to spend on international sports, but selling your soul comes with a steep price. Hollywood long ago caved to China, censoring movies for the sake of massive paydays.
And clearly the relentlessly corrupt International Olympic Committee would love to just hold every Olympics – winter, summer and everything in between – in Beijing from here to eternity. After all, former IOC member and International Ski Federation President Gian Franco Kasper earlier this year said, “I just want to go to dictatorships …”
Because dictatorships don’t quibble over little matters like environmental destruction and human rights. Just ask Russian President Vladimir Putin, who parlayed the international goodwill of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics into an invasion of Crimea and separatist incursion into eastern Ukraine – not to mention the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines passenger plane.
I took a hard pass on covering those $50-billion-boondoggle games – snapping a streak of working three straight Winter Olympics — and Putin’s subsequent hacking of the 2016 U.S presidential election, campaign of international assassinations and moves in the Middle East have served to cement that decision. The IOC should never again award such behavior.
China’s World Cup ski-racing debut this season will be a preview of the snow-deprived venues for the 2022 Winter Olympics as Beijing becomes the first and hopefully last city to host both the summer (2008) and winter games. Colorado, where there are actually high mountains usually loaded with natural snow, remains the only place to be awarded the games and give them back.
Milan-Cortina, Italy, will host the 2026 Winter Olympics, and Utah was chosen over Colorado to make a bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics. One of the reasons given by the U.S. Olympic Committee was the overwhelming public support in Utah, where policymakers act a lot more like Chinese and Russian autocrats than lawmakers and citizens in increasingly blue Colorado.
Not surprisingly, red-state Republicans like Vice President Mike Pence have been much quicker to criticize the inner-city liberal NBA and Hillary Clinton-backer James on their collective China problem than they have been to take on Putin’s growing list of bad acts across the globe – clearly because of President Donald Trump’s unexplained bromance with the former KGB officer.
China right now is an easier target for Republicans like Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who recently called for sanctions on Twitter: “The Administration must make clear to Beijing that any crackdown in Hong Kong will have profound consequences for China, including imposition of US sanctions, which was included in my amendment that passed the Senate as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.”
But how will that fly when Colorado athletes like Shiffrin, an Edwards resident, are racing in China this season, or when she’s the obvious face of the 2022 games on NBC? By then, Shiffrin could be working on her sixth straight overall World Cup title and could be the all-time record-holder for the most World Cup victories.
Shiffrin currently stands at 60 wins, just three shy of passing retired Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proell for second on the all-time women’s list behind only former Vail resident Lindsey Vonn at 82. On the men’s side, only retired Austrian Marcel Hirscher (67) and legendary Swede Ingemar Stenmark (86) have more wins.
Shiffrin, 24, is also just one medal short of tying Bode Miller’s all-time American mark of 11 combined Olympic and World Championship medals, although Shiffrin owns far more gold (seven) already, compared to Vonn (three) and Miller (five). Barring injury, she’ll be a heavy favorite to grow that total in Beijing.
Sports leagues and organizations can control their staff but not their athletes, with First Amendment rights trumping censorship. Shiffrin is very careful compared to Vonn and Miller, both outspoken athletes on subjects ranging from Trump to climate change, but she may feel compelled to weigh in if China unleashes a Tiananmen-style crackdown in Hong Kong. Other athletes, especially on the freestyle side, will not hold back so easily.
It’s not hard to imagine Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and the concentration camps (excuse me, job training centers) of Xinjiang becoming roiling regions of unrest by 2022, and the Han Chinese government unleashing unholy hell in one or more of those places.
Xinjiang is held up as China’s most legitimate region for ski industry growth, with truly high mountains and exceptional snow quality, but it’s difficult to envision westerners flocking there en masse as the Chinese round up predominantly Muslim Uighurs and Kazaks and try to brutally repress their cultures the way they’ve so effectively overwhelmed Tibet.
And it’s equally hard to imagine the situation getting better before the 2022 Winter Olympics. It’s telling there are no Olympic events scheduled in the far western part of the country that some believe is the birthplace of skiing, and pure fantasy to imagine a modern snow sports boom taking hold there as envisioned just a decade or so ago.