Global Tensions at the Winter Games | Crooked Media
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February 22, 2022
Global Tensions at the Winter Games

In This Episode

Jason talks to National Post columnist Sabrina Maddeaux and Wall Street Journal reporter Stu Woo about Max Parrot, Kamila Valieva, Eileen Gu, Nathan Chen and how the Winter Olympics become a stage for global politics.


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Jason Concepcion: Hey, everybody, we have a special Olympic sized episode today, I’m talking to Canada’s National Post columnist Sabrina Maddeaux and also Stu Woo of The Wall Street Journal, who is in Beijing covering the games. Please give it a listen. Joining us now from Toronto, Canada is National Post columnist Sabrina Mido. Her journalistic range spans from culture to politics north of the border, but lately her attention has been focused on the Beijing Olympic Games. Sabrina, welcome to Lateline.


Sabrina Maddeaux: Thanks for having me.


Jason Concepcion: Let’s go right into it. You know, the games are always a display of geopolitical relations, and I think this games. Perhaps that is more present than ever with tensions in the Ukraine and tensions generally between the West and China, specifically Canada and the U.S. and China always there in the background is providing a kind of context to what we’re seeing. How are people viewing the games in Canada and do those kind of existing tensions between Canada and and China influence the way people are thinking about the games right now?


Sabrina Maddeaux: Absolutely. Like you said, the Olympics never happens in a silo. There are always broader societal and political implications. And countries and their leaders are very aware of this. So they do use the games to disseminate propaganda or to influence the international conversation and to try and sway public opinion. And China, in particular, has been pretty prolific in trying to use the Olympics to do that. Dating back from when Beijing hosted the Games in 2008 to now when they’re hosting them in twenty twenty two. But this time around, I think the public in general is wising up a bit to their ulterior motives. Obviously, they’ve been in the news a lot over the last couple of years for their increasingly aggressive foreign policy. There was the incident with the two Michaels in Canada, where they were detained for a very long time without cause, possibly in retaliation for Canada detaining on behalf of the US while way executive. Now, thankfully, the two Michaels were released before the games, but that’s left a lasting impression in Canada for sure that they understand that Beijing isn’t playing nice on the world stage. And actually a lot of Canadians have tuned out of the Olympics because of that, they’re boycotting them. Some stats came from our national broadcaster, the CBC, which broadcasts the Olympics here the other day, and viewership is down like 40 percent from the last Winter Olympics and is down huge from the Tokyo Games as well. So a lot of people are just saying No, thank you. We don’t want to support this. We don’t want to be a part of it, which might be a good thing. Perhaps it will force some change.


Jason Concepcion: Let’s talk about a Canadian athlete in particular. Max’s medal winning run, some scoring controversy there. Certainly not something that if anybody is a sports watcher or an Olympic watcher, certainly not something that is foreign to the Olympics, right? There are scoring controversies constantly. A lot of the particular events, whether it be figure skating, ice dancing, et cetera, are scored subjectively, although they try to make it as rigorous theoretically as possible. Talk to us about what happened on Max’s medal winning run.


Sabrina Maddeaux: Like you said, the games have a long history of scoring controversies from figure skating to snowboarding, and in this case, snowboarding has had a lot of controversy. This Olympic Games and the one you’re referring to in particular, happened in the men’s snowboard slopestyle final. Max did his run, which was spectacular, except he made a pretty major error, which was during a jump he grabbed his knees rather than his board, and typically that would result in a reduction of two to three points. And that would have been enough to change the medal standings. But in this case, Judge human error missed that he missed the grab, so they gave him the full points and he ended up coming in first and winning gold when in reality, he should not have based on that pretty big error. So there was a lot of controversy around that. And actually another Canadian snowboarder who came in third and placed in bronze, had said to the media afterwards that Max hadn’t deserved the win, that the judges had really screwed up and that caused a lot of hoopla as well. He ended up apologizing afterwards, of course.


Jason Concepcion: Yeah, I think, well, you know, like snowboarding is kind of it’s not new, but it’s sort of new. And it’s certainly introduced like a a less buttoned up, more fun kind of athlete to the Olympics that I think maybe the very kind of buttoned down Olympic Games is not usually used to dealing with. Let’s talk about the situation and figure skating, which I think is at the top of everyone’s mind right now. Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, who’s 15 years old, tested positive for a variety of substances that could suggest that she was doping was allowed to compete. And then one can only surmise under the intense pressure of the games broke down on the ice. What are the thoughts there in Canada and your own personal thoughts about whether she should even have been allowed to compete?


Sabrina Maddeaux: That’s been quite the saga, and I agree the most prominent story coming out of the games, and it’s really tragic because, like you said, it deals with a minor athlete who’s only she’s 15 years old. Yeah, that’s right. And especially watching in the finals and when she fell twice and then broke down, sobbing afterwards and her coaches were rather cold and actually offering criticism after rather than comfort, it was a really revealing moment about how little a lot of the parties involved in the Games, whether that’s Olympic Committees or coaches or the sporting bodies themselves actually care about the athletes. We’ve seen a lot of athletes coming out. We saw in the Tokyo Games, too. Speaking about mental health, about how they’re treated to great point abuses. And this is a pattern we’re seeing emerge and it’s great that athletes are speaking out or about it, even though Kamila hasn’t spoken out. But there’s political considerations for her as well, of course, being from Russia. But the bigger story here is Russia technically isn’t supposed to be competing in the game, right? Correct. They’re competing under the ROC banner because they supposedly received a ban after the Sochi Olympics, in which they were discovered to be undergoing a state sponsored doping, which, you know, they weren’t just giving their athletes drugs. What they were doing was they were making their own proprietary cocktail of steroids and giving that to their athletes, and they were also sneaking lab tests in and out of the Sochi lab through a mouse hole. So this was like as bad as it gets in doping. And yet they still weren’t fully banned, supposedly because they didn’t want innocent athletes to be harmed. But from my perspective, you are harming innocent athletes when you allow this doping culture to continue.


Jason Concepcion: Yeah, we spoke earlier about how these games, since they began, have essentially been a stand in for geopolitical considerations, political relationships between nations, et cetera. And when that happens, the pressure on the athletes is immense. You mentioned the Japanese games, the pressure that the Japanese athletes were under and spoke about and manifested despite coming in second or third, coming to the podium in tears, talking about they let their nation down. Those are the kind of pressures that are there in a kind of normal setting, you know, as normal as this can be. But with Russia, I mean, you spoke about it, the previous doping, you couldn’t even call it allegations. But the case for which there is significant evidence was extremely structured, thought out, broad based and active at every level with the goal of providing substances to athletes to allow them to compete above and beyond a normal level with the acquiescence of the government and the Russian Olympic Committee again at every level. So it’s wild that they’re allowed to compete. What is the view of the other competitors, the other athletes? I mean, I would imagine it would be tough to talk about it there at the games, but is there a sense of how other athletes are feeling about the fact that Valieva was allowed to compete?


Sabrina Maddeaux: I think for athletes, a lot of them empathized with her because they understand how young she is and the pressure she’s been under. So I think the collective feeling is that the athlete herself in this case should not be blamed, but there should be serious accountability for her coaches, her doctors and nutritionists, the Russian Olympic Committee, Russia itself. Everyone around her should be held accountable. And the problem with allowing her to continue to compete is that put her in the position where she broke to the point she was falling, she was sobbing. It would have been better for her mentally and probably in the long term to be taken out of the games. So we need to have a conversation about how we’re treating athletes and also the conversation about how we apply doping standards. When there are these constant doping controversies and these discrepancies around how different athletes get treated, how athletes from different countries get treated. There needs to be more consistency and there really needs to be a zero tolerance approach.


Jason Concepcion: You talk about the substances, so there’s three different ones. It seems like they have to do with working on the human heart somehow. But is there an idea about how these would have helped her?


Sabrina Maddeaux: The one about the heart from my understanding is it can increase blood flow to the heart, which can increase stamina, of course. And you know, I’m not a doctor, so I can’t get into much more detail than that. But that’s the gist of it.


Jason Concepcion: Many have pointed out the seeming double standard using the case of the American athlete Sha’carri Richardson, who was suspended from the Summer Olympic Games in. That case, it was for testing positive for marijuana, which while legal in her state and in almost half the country, it was a banned substance, despite it certainly not being a performance enhancer in any kind of way. Do you see a.. Do you see a hypocrisy here in the way these two different situations were legislated?


Sabrina Maddeaux: I do think there was an Sha’carri herself came out on Twitter earlier this week and said, “Look at the situation. The only difference I can see is that I’m a black female athlete.” And she had been incredibly accepting of the ruling up until then and apologetic. And so for her to come out and make that kind of statement was a really big thing from my perspective with Sha’carri we need to have a conversation about recreational drugs and cannabis in particular, which, like you said, is legal in many states. In many countries, it’s legal in Canada, and it was legal in the state that she was qualifying in. So why why is she being banned until cannabis is not tied to performance enhancement? So what we’re talking about when we ban athletes for recreational drugs like cannabis is we’re legislating morality instead of trying to put everyone on an equal playing ground. And sports should be about the equal playing ground. So I think we need to move away from the focus on recreational drugs


Jason Concepcion: as we as we move past the games again with all the kind of international considerations that are currently happening, whether it’s competition between the U.S. and China or, you know, the rising tensions between Russia and NATO vis a vis Ukraine, all of which are playing out in different ways through these games. As we move past these games, what do you think are the legacy of of the Beijing Games will be?


Sabrina Maddeaux: I’m hoping that the IOC will be much more wary of giving the games to authoritarian states, especially ones with terrible human rights records. That has really brought down the overall vibe surrounding these games and has resulted in a lot of controversy and put athletes in a really bad place. So the IOC needs to be more aware of that. I think that we’re seeing a lack of action and reform in the judging world and when it comes to doping, really start to make, I mean, headlines multiple times a day and controversies in multiple sports. So hopefully we’ll see reform from that. The good news is that the next few games are in democratic nations, so hopefully we can continue to see that pattern and that democratic nations will continue to step up with bids for the games.


Jason Concepcion: She is Sabrina Maddeaux. She is a columnist for the National Post. Sabrina, thank you for joining us.


Sabrina Maddeaux: Thanks for having me.


Jason Concepcion: [AD].


Jason Concepcion: Joining us now is Wall Street Journal staff writer Stu Woo, who covers the relationship between the U.S. and China, as his regular beat and he is in Beijing watching the game. Stu, thanks for joining us.


Stu Woo: Thanks for having me, Jason.


Jason Concepcion: So what’s it like on the ground there? How is the vibe? How has it been, you know, covering the Olympics essentially at ground level over there?


Stu Woo: Yeah, I think so. These are my second Olympics, and I think the vibe is that, you know, there’s a lot of happiness here, but it’s like really heavily balanced out by a lot sadness. I mean, I was just saying just in the minutes, just like a minute ago, I was scrambling to download Zoom on my burner phone and set it up just so we can even have this conversation. So there’s that element. Just talking to all the athletes about the apps that they did and forgot to download on their burner phones before coming. But I think when you think about like the main storylines of these Olympics they’re pretty sad. You have Kamila Valieva. You know, just just just watching that in person was heart breaking. Even when Nathan Chen won gold, I went to a short program and then afterwards I was like looking really closely at his mask and he was wearing two masks. He was wearing like an N95 and another mask on top of that. And I was just like, Oh man, this this guy really, really, really wants to win gold to put himself through something like that. And then of course, you have all these people who got Covid right before, like Mikaela Shiffrin, who didn’t win gold. So I think this is like the sad, awkward Olympics. I think,


Jason Concepcion: yeah, the Olympics are always a stage for politics, for global politics, for the relationships between nations. And it seems like with COVID being the context for basically everything that’s happened on planet Earth in the last two years, it feels like these Olympics are specifically a showcase for China to say, We’re look how we’re doing it, we’re doing it better than everybody else. Is that the case? You feel like safer there than at a comparable sporting event as somewhere else?


Stu Woo: Oh yeah. Well, first let me say I used to live in Beijing. I was in China for the first three months of the pandemic until March 2020, and when it happened, they literally shut down my neighborhood. They put a checkpoint. The local Communist Party authorities put up checkpoints at each of the six or so entrances to my neighborhood. I had to do a temperature check and show them like a card that proved that I live there. So I knew coming in that this would be like the safest place in the world and all the athletes feel that way too. I think like two days ago, there were zero recorded cases in the bubble. So we land at the airport and we get this like PCR test that like tickles our brain. Like like they they put it up your nose and and you’re like, Wow, that’s pretty deep. And then they go, like, like an inch deeper and then you’re just begging for mercy. You’re crying. And then we have to take a throat swab every single day before we leave the hotel. And then not only have to wear a mask, but it’s got to be an N95 mask. So I would have been shocked if I’d gotten COVID here. Any of my coworkers have gotten here. So that was not a worry at all. On the other hand, I mean, it is it is a pain to wear one of those things for 16 hours a day. But those are the rules.


Jason Concepcion: Eileen Gu, American born Chinese athlete, won the Gold Medal in half-pipe and the silver in slopestyle. There’s been a lot of conversation about from people on the sidelines about who she is representing, essentially asking her to make a choice between China and America that it seems like I think a lot of people, myself included, would say it’s a little unfair to be putting this on her in a way that we don’t put on other athletes. Is that feeling present there? What is what is that like watching her in China?


Stu Woo: Yeah, that is an unavoidable feeling. So I saw her win her second medal, which wants a silver medal. And I’ve been following her for a long time. I’m also a Chinese American person from San Francisco. I went to her rival high school. I actually asked her. My first question was why didn’t you go to my high school? And she said I didn’t get in and I was like, Yo, Eileen, I didn’t get into your high school. So that’s cool. But so I think you’re right and is there are questions is, you know, are there’s a Canadian American bobsledder, for instance, who won gold  she doesn’t get asked as many questions about switching from Canada to America as Eileen does for a choice between representing China and the U.S., so there’s some speculation there could be some racism involved. So is that unfair? Possible? I think what is a fair question to ask and this is what I asked, is when you choose to represent an authoritarian country like China. There are some compromises that you make and she is. There’s pictures of her with Xi Jinping at at a press conference a couple of years ago. So the question is, is the Chinese government? Is the Chinese Communist Party using your medals that you were winning for China as a tool of soft power for propaganda? And on top of that, Eileen’s making tons of money in China. Every time we turn on TV, here she is doing an ad for a watch or a car or milk or something like that, right? So she’s making tons of money here. But the compromise that she has to make and anybody who does business in China has to make is that if you want to make a lot of money here, you can’t criticize the official stance of the Chinese government on human rights or anything like that. So I think those questions are fair.


Jason Concepcion: We all watch the Kamila Valieva situation with, I think, a mixture of frustration at one what appears to be the double standard for doping penalties levied against Russian athletes and the kind of extreme pressure that seemed that was clearly placed on her as she competed and that clearly affected her in a very serious way. Um have what’s what has been the feeling there about Kamila and what do the athletes? What are the other athletes think about her situation?


Stu Woo: I went to see her free skates, and, you know, first of all, it’s weird to watch figure skating without like Tara Lipinski in your ear. You know, I’m kind of. Yeah. So she went last and I noticed. And you know, everybody who was there that night was there to see her. And then I noticed that there was a stream of people leaving the arena and I was like, That’s weird. And then I looked closely and they were all wearing red, white and blue, and they happened to be sitting where the Americans were sitting. And I realized that Team USA looked like they were boycotting her performance at the end. So I think that gives you an indication of how some athletes from some countries feel about her competing there. I think I think I went back and listened to the Peacock, you know, commentary on the performance afterwards, and I think they got it right. I mean, she probably shouldn’t have been performing. And then you saw what happened when she did. But yeah, again, just being in that arena without hearing any commentary that you just you could just sense tension. And I think in hindsight, why did we all expect her to win a gold medal after what she went through? It should not have been a surprise that she was going to perform like that.


Jason Concepcion: As a Chinese American, it is inescapable that the U.S. and China are increasingly competing for a top spot among nations. And I wonder, have you thought about or do you have any feelings about the effect that might have on Asian Americans here? You know, I think about the competition between the U.S. and the USSR during the Cold War through the 80s and into the 90s. It was heated. There was a lot of like propaganda, a lot of rhetoric, but there was no threat that a non-white nation could possibly supplant the U.S. in the same way that there is with China and with all the negative things that could come with that, with the potential for leveraging bias and racism in service of propaganda. Does it worry you at all as we enter this age of direct competition between these two nations?


Stu Woo: I think about, yeah. First of all, I think about this a lot and it goes beyond the Olympics. Jeremy Lin is is a is a Taiwanese Christian athlete playing in you know for Beijing’s most successful basketball team, the Chinese Basketball Association’s most successful basketball team right now. I think about that a lot, and it’s hard to win because I mean, just look at Eileen’s situation and I think her’s is a little bit different. But even when I lived here, the Chinese claimed me as one of their own. Like, you’re Chinese, your passport might say the United States of America on it, but you’re Chinese. And I was expecting that people like Nathan Chen would come here and be celebrated. But there’s nothing about it because I think he has been critical or at least has raised concerns about politics and human rights in China in the past. Even if he did so very gently, I think that that means that you’re not going to be able to market yourself, get endorsement deals and in this country of one and a half billion people in it. And it’s sad because my parents are from this country. You know, his parents or the parents of a lot of Asian-American athletes are from this country. You want to enjoy both. But in this world today, it seems like you really got to choose one. I think what’s interesting about Eileen Gu is that a lot of us have asked her, Why are you staying silent on these issues right now? And what she says is, Look, I’m a teenager. I’m focused on inspiring athletes, young girls at this moment. So at this moment, right? So is she just saying that because that’s what just came out of her mouth right then or is leaving the door open for for other options in the future? She said it twice now. So maybe, maybe she’s just not closing her options right now.


Jason Concepcion: It’s easy from here to, you know, read Xi Jinping’s statements and read analysis about where China might be headed and the things that they want to do in the future. And it’s certainly impossible to ignore the aggressiveness with which they counter any kind of criticisms about them by anyone that takes part in their economy in any kind of way. Do you have any kind of idea where this is heading? I think originally the idea when the U.S. and the West began to engage economically with China in the late 80s 90s, was that, oh, this is this is how we influence them. It’s unclear that the influence is going in the direction that people thought in the 80s and 90s do you have any kind of feeling about where this is all headed.


Stu Woo: Well, you know, so Jason. So I I was a sports reporter for four years. I’m actually not anymore. I haven’t been on sports for five years. This is the main thing I write about, actually is how tensions between the US and China.


Jason Concepcion: That’s whyI’m asking you the question Stu.


Stu Woo: So just the fact that I had to do this on my phone because it, because it has a foreign SIM card, I couldn’t use my computer because I don’t have access to the Western internet. The wifi, the wifi here is behind the Great Firewall. So we already live in this world where there are two internet systems, right? So in China, you use Baidu and WeChat, instead of Facebook, Instagram and Google. If you’ve been watching Eileen Gu’s races closely, you’re going to see this logo on clothes she’s wearing. It’s Anta. That’s like the “Nike of China”. But you can’t buy there. That’s also Clay Thompson’s shoe brand, by the way. But the US just passed a law that says you can’t import cotton from Xinjiang, which is like the where all these human rights abuses are allegedly happening. Well, Anta says that we get cotton from Japan. So, so now we’re in this world with these two different internet systems, like one that’s Chinese and one that’s mainly predominantly American. We’re in this world now where people might be wearing different athletic apparel, too, because of these laws and human rights concerns. And there’s some other evidence that the financial system is splitting too. These are early days, and right now the internet’s the best example of that, but we are had. It in a direction where people in the US and China are going to be wearing different kinds of clothing, using different kinds of monetary systems, buying different kinds of stocks for their portfolios. That’s the direction we’re headed right now, and it might take, you know, 50 years if it’s completely decouples. But there’s no movement towards being one global system right now


Jason Concepcion: just to take the devil’s advocate. I think, you know, the Chinese perspective is something like the US committed X amount of human rights violations in their rise to becoming the preeminent nation on Earth did all the stuff that we’re being accused of doing it now. So what’s the deal now that somebody else is coming up the mountain side all of a sudden and it’s a problem? Is that kind of the argument that China would make?


Stu Woo: Jason, you nailed it. That’s exactly the kind of question they made. How dare you with your history, with slavery, with with the Chinese Exclusion Act, that limited immigration from China to the US, with with the internment camps and the Japanese-Americans in World War Two? How dare you lecture us? They do not like being lectured. I think that’s to some degree that’s fair. And the pitch, the I guess, the the way the dialog is being held right now with a lot of yelling, and finger pointing, it’s not really conducive to anything. So there needs to be at least a change in the way that these two countries conduct diplomacy in some ways, and it might be happening behind doors right now. And there’s a lot of political posturing on both sides in the US, possibly just to win votes because it’s really popular to bash China. But the way it’s being conducted in public right now? No, the Chinese government hates and I think there is some fairness behind that.


Jason Concepcion: Yeah, I think my concern is and tell me if this is a legitimate concern is you mentioned how popular it is here to bash China. I believe that is the case. I think that there are probably many politicians and talking heads who bash China, who do so, not because they care about human rights, because they want to bash China, and that helps them leverage their own talking points, et cetera. But do you worry that we’re in a realm in which that kind of the bashing, which is very popular from both sides, can take on a life of its own, no matter what the kind of diplomacy and talks are that are going on behind closed doors.


Stu Woo: You know, we see that. I see that in Twitter. You know, it just gets on Twitter and in the comments section for a lot of stories I write, it’s that people just automatically take these really defensive positions on either side. So I have seen that, you know, I will say, you know, you were talking about the US and the USSR before a lot of people are calling this new Cold War. You know, I just want to say right now, this is not a Cold War right now. The Cold War had proxy hot wars, right? There’s none of that right now. We’re not doing drills where people are hiding under their desks that school because of the threat of nuclear annihilation. We’re not there yet and I say yet, but we might never be there. So. So this is more of a diplomatic and than technological Cold War, so I wouldn’t worry about that right now.


Jason Concepcion: He is Wall Street Journal London Bureau reporter Stu Woo. Stu, thanks for giving us your first-person perspective on these Olympic Games.


Stu Woo: Hey this was a fun, thoughtful conversation. Thanks for having me.


Jason Concepcion: [AD].


Jason Concepcion: That’s it for us. Follow and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. And don’t forget, subscribe to Takeline Show on YouTube for exclusive video clips from this episode, plus my digital series All Caps NBA, which airs every Friday. Check it out. Let’s go! Take Line is a Crooked Media production show is produced by Zuri Irvin, our executive producers are myself and Sandy Girard are contributing. Producers are Caroline Resnick, Elijah Cohn and Jason Gallagher. Engineering, Editing and sound design by Sara Gibalaska and the folks at Chapter four and our theme music is produced by Brian Vasquez.