BEIJING – After a morning training session at the Winter Olympics’ Big Air Shougang venue, British snowboarder Katie Ormerod stopped by the press zone to do a quick interview. The topic wasn’t how much air time she got or the tricks she was trying to pull off.
“I have 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’s so much artificial snow that’s being 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 began taking a knee during games to protest police brutality against Black people.
The Olympics are no exception, even here in Beijing, where pro-Democracy demonstrations were violently put down by the government in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and 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 Russia’s military build-up that has raised fears of military conflict.
“I fight for peace," Heraskevych said, adding that he had planned before the Olympics to “show my position to the world.”
“We’re seeing this all over sport where athletes are becoming more involved,” said Noah Hoffman, a former U.S. Olympic skier and board member of Global Athlete, an advocacy group. “And yeah, I think it’s only going to continue to grow.”
Protests have long been restricted by the International Olympic Committee, but last year the rules were eased to allow limited activism at the Games inside the field of play.
At last year’s Summer Games in Tokyo, soccer players took a knee as a gesture against racism.
Elsewhere, Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka and Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton have publicly backed the Black Lives Matter movement. Osaka has also spoken out on her mental health issues, as has U.S Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter Freedom has drawn attention to the plight of Tibetans and Uyghurs in China.
Olympic podium protests are still off limits. That mean the chance of a repeat of the raised black-gloved fist by U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Olympics is unlikely. At the time, it got them expelled from the Olympic village and suspended by the IOC.
In Beijing, athlete activism has been muted because of fears about what China's Communist leaders could do to squelch criticism of country's human rights record.
An official with the Beijing Organizing Committee warned ahead of the Games that: “Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.”
Rights groups responded by advising athletes to keep quiet while in China, citing as a cautionary tale the disappearance of tennis player Peng Shuai after she accused a former high-ranking member of the Communist Party of sexual assault. Peng has since re-emerged, saying her accusation was misinterpreted, and was seen attending Olympic events last week in Beijing.
German luger Natalie Geisenberger has said she grappled with whether to attend because of concerns that included human rights.
Hoffman, who was on the 2014 and 2018 U.S. Olympic cross country ski teams, has been in touch with a current member who’s holding back outspoken views on political issues until they get home, “because it’s just not worth the risk.”
“When athletes are told to get burner phones and rental computers, they know this is not normal," Hoffman said. "They’ve been told they’re not going to have any privacy that everything they say is going to be monitored. So of course, they’re not speaking out and it’s terrifying.”
Many Olympians are reluctant to back more divisive 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 a more natural fit for snowboarders and skiers who worry about what warmer winters are doing to their sport.
This year’s setting, in China’s parched capital where organizers spent months making artificial snow, has reinforced concerns about the future viability of the Winter Games.
Ormerod has spoken out about climate change’s effects on snowboarding, as has Finnish snowboarder Enni Rukajarvi.
“I hope that other athletes would use their voice as well,” said Rukajarvi, who won silver at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. She's a longtime climate activist who has campaigned for ski resorts in Finland to use renewable electricity. “I feel like when I’m an athlete I need to do something good."
Dozens of athletes competing in Beijing, from the U.S., Canada, Europe and Japan, have worked on climate issues in coordination with Protect Our Winters, an athlete-driven environmental group.
The aim 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 came fifth in the halfpipe competition, told the AP in December that “trying to do things at the individual level is great,” such as carpooling and cycling instead of driving, or eating less meat. “But at the end of the day, we really need systemic change to have the impact that we need to preserve these places" threatened by global warming.
Some athletes work at the grassroots level.
Paul Schommer, a member of the U.S. biathlon team with a degree in chemistry, has given talks about the science of climate change to schoolchildren in his hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin.
“Climate change is not something that’s always talked about back in my hometown,” Schommer said. “And so to be able to go back home and kind of talk a little bit more with with students there was something that I’ve done in the past and has been pretty cool.”
Associated Press videojournalist Brittany Peterson contributed to this report from Copper Mountain, Colorado.
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