Olympian Noah Hoffman advising athletes to remain silent at the Winter Olympics
Former Aspen cross-country skier is working for Global Athlete to increase athlete voice
VAIL — Two-time Olympian Noah Hoffman’s life is busier now than it ever was during his 10-year U.S. Nordic ski team career. The soon-to-be Brown graduate — he’ll have an economics degree by May — has thrown himself into athlete activism since his retirement in 2018.
Hoffman, who grew up in Aspen, started in the anti-doping world before becoming a founding athlete board member of Global Athlete, an organization which seeks to hold sport governing bodies such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Ski Federation (FIS) accountable. In striving to increase athlete voice and give his former peers a proper seat at the table, he finds himself at the fore of another Olympics.
At a Human Rights Watch roundtable discussion last week, he spoke out against the IOC’s lack of accountability regarding the Beijing Games. The oppression of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region, as well as the communist government’s actions in Tibet and Hong Kong, its general intolerance of dissent and the recent plight of Peng Shuai all fueled a diplomatic boycott of the Games by the United States government. The IOC has not stated whether it will protect athletes who speak out against human rights abuses, leaving them at the whim of the Chinese state. Canada, Britain and other nations have joined in the diplomatic boycott, as well.
“Rule 50 and its restraint of free speech on athletes aligns uncommonly well with the CCP’s social repression and athletes should be enraged that both their host, and their governing body, seek to limit their voice,” human rights activist and lawyer Craig Foster told the South China Morning Post.
“Chinese government officials and diplomats have confirmed that athletes are being silenced and threatened with Draconian penalties in Beijing simply if they speak out against genocide.”
In a 45-minute podcast with the Vail Daily, Hoffman elaborated on the vagueness of a senior member of the Beijing organizing committee’s statement about punishment for speaking out against the government.
“Chinese law, when it comes to what kind of speech is permitted, especially speech that is critical of the Chinese state, is very opaque. It’s not clear at all what kind of speech she’s talking about,” he said.
For that reason, Hoffman is going against his nature, advising athletes — many of whom are friends and former teammates — to remain silent.
“Believe me, I think athletes speaking is extremely valuable, not just to the athletes, but to the broader society,” he said. “That’s what makes athletics so valuable to me. That’s why I’m still involved in sports at all. Because I believe in the power of athletes to really transcend sports and be instrumental role models in society. And so it just kills me to tell athletes that they should be quiet, that they should not speak up. But if I were headed to these Games, I would have my mouth shut, because I do not believe that athletes will be safe if they’re speaking out about the issues in China, human rights issues or about issues relating to the IOC at this point.”
Yaqiu Wang, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch, said the disappearance of the tennis player Peng Shuai was “a good indicator of what could possibly happen” if athletes spoke out.
Hoffman, host of The Global Athlete Podcast, dedicated an entire episode to Shuai’s case, explaining how the tennis star spoke out against an elite communist party official regarding sexual abuse she suffered at his hand. She then immediately disappeared and the surname Peng was wiped off the internet, as was the search term “tennis.”
“It’s insane,” Hoffman said of the case. “And then the IOC comes in and says, ‘Nothing to see 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 set up a press conference to show that Peng is alright even though it’s very clear from people who study these things and people who have gone through these disappearances, that the press conference and the public statements have all been staged, they’ve all been under the influence of the Chinese Communist Party.
“They’re (the IOC) working with the Chinese Communist Party on covering up this story about an Olympic athlete to parrot the communist party line. It is just mind-boggling the lack of responsibility they’ve shown for athletes and the amount that they’re willing to bend over for the CCP.”
Hoffman believes Global Athlete’s work is attacking 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 up, where they’re being asked not to attend the Games, where the U.S. government has decided not to go?
“So, I’m trying to take the spotlight away from all of these consequences — should athletes speak up, should athletes boycott, should governments boycott — and say, all of this comes back to the IOC’s lack of commitment to human rights and lack of commitment to athletes, and lack of accountability.”
Part of the issue, according to Hoffman, stems from how athletes are organized within the sports administrations they compete under.
“The IOC’s athlete commission is really part of the IOC administration,” he explained.
“Same with the WADA athlete committee. Same with the FIS athlete committee. Same even in this country — there’s a little bit of independence now between the USOPC athlete committee and the organization of the USOPC, but not very much. There is no independence. If your representatives are part of the administration that you’re trying to hold accountable, you’re never going to actually be able to hold the administration accountable.”
Trying to reconcile 208 different countries’ views on how unions ought to operate exasperates the problem.
“The diversity of the Olympic movement is a huge barrier to organizing athletes in any way that resembles what you see in Major League Baseball or 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 be put on the Beijing organizers and the IOC.
First, he points to the broader question of the 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 in the matter. It should be a negotiation between athletes and the IOC about where the Games are being awarded,” Hoffman argued.
Instead of embodying the unifying symbols of Olympism, encouraging nations to apply through a public bid process promoting and prioritizing human rights, the IOC has become less transparent, according to Hoffman. As a result, authoritarian governments are the only nations capable of fronting the huge financial weight of the bid process, something they are motivated to do.
“We would like to see accountability and transparency in the bid process and necessitating that they’re actually making the Games beneficial to the host countries so that countries want to host the Games so that there’s not this enormous cost that only the authoritarian regimes that are able to use the Games to their political advantage are willing to go through,” Hoffman pleaded.
He’d also like to see the international declaration of human rights embedded into the IOC’s framework.
“For instance, the international human right of freedom of expression is embodied into the IOC so that every host city, including China — if that’s where the Games are going to go — has to abide by athletes’ freedom of expression, rather than what is happening now, which is saying that any athlete that speaks out against the laws of China, no matter how opaque those are and no matter how much those violate an athletes’ freedom of expression, is going to be subject to punishment.”
Finally, Hoffman believes athlete safety needs to be ensured.
“We’re going to protect athletes and we’re going to ensure, no matter where the Olympics are, that athletes have a right to stand up for the values they believe in,” he clamored for the IOC to say.
“They have a right to stand up for human rights, they have a right to stand up for human dignity, they have to call out racism, genocide — to call out any social issue they believe in. Because athletes have a right to freedom of expression, to use their platform, just like everyone else does.”