Kenworthy on ‘speaking up for what I believe in’
British freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy says China is “not well suited” to host the Winter Olympics because of its reported human rights abuses.
The International Olympic Committee has been criticised for awarding the Games to China because of the country’s treatment of its ethnic minorities.
The World Uyghur Congress has described the event as “a genocide Olympics”.
Kenworthy said the IOC “should not grant” the Games to countries with “appalling” human rights records.
“I think the IOC should take a stance against a lot of these atrocities and stand up for important issues, and by not granting those countries the right to host the Games they could create positive change in those places – maybe not even letting them compete,” the 30-year-old told BBC Sport’s Laura Scott.
“I know the Olympics are so important to China and they are always so high up in the medal count, that I feel like by actually taking a stance against them in a real tangible way you could probably make some positive change.
“It’s all about money, it seems like. I don’t really think they’re well suited to host the Games.”
Human rights groups say the Chinese government has gradually stripped away the religious and other freedoms of the Uighurs – a Muslim minority group living mostly in the Xinjiang province in north-west China – culminating in an oppressive system of mass surveillance, detention, indoctrination and even forced sterilisation.
China has consistently denied allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, insisting camps were not detention camps, but “vocational educational and training centres”.
Kenworthy, who switched allegiance from the United States to Great Britain in 2019, said he plans to “speak up” for what he believes in and will use his “voice and platform to stand up for those ideals”.
However, he believes the planned diplomatic boycotts by the UK, US, Canada and Australia, among other countries, will make little difference.
“I think that it comes down to the IOC not granting those countries the right to host, or even to compete,” Kenworthy said.
“Yes, that also would affect the athletes, but then it would be up to those countries to then implement change in order to have their athletes competing.”
Kenworthy said he does fear a backlash to his comments, but added: “I have always been someone that’s a firm believer in speaking up for what you do believe in and using your voice.
“I think when you have a platform, you’re expected to use your voice in an even bigger way because you have a way to amplify a message.
“I don’t even want to try and speak out against China or take on China or anything, I feel like I’m more directing my messages at the IOC. I don’t think that the IOC should grant these countries the right to host if they have human rights issues, if there’s genocide going on in the country, if they have stances against the LGBTQ community.
“You shouldn’t get to host the Games, sorry.”
In a statement to BBC Sport, the IOC said: “The IOC has neither the mandate nor the capability to change the laws or the political system of a sovereign country. This must rightfully remain the legitimate role of governments and respective intergovernmental organisations.
“The Olympic Games are the only event that brings the entire world together in peaceful competition. They are the most powerful symbol of unity in all our diversity that the world knows. In our fragile world, the power of sport to bring the whole world together, despite all the existing differences, gives us all hope for a better future.
“Given the diverse participation in the Olympic Games, the IOC must remain neutral on all global political issues.”
The ‘bumpy’ road to Beijing
Gus Kenworthy has competed in both the halfpipe and slopestyle events
While representing the US, Kenworthy won slopestyle silver at the Sochi 2014 Olympics, but placed 12th four years later in Pyeongchang.
In the years since, huge ups and downs have come his way, including knockouts, knee surgery, Covid-19 and concussions.
“My coach and I have been joking because we’ve had quite a lot of setbacks in the lead-up to this Olympics,” he said.
“It has felt like it’s been one thing after another and we’ve kept joking ‘it’s just another bump in the road’.
“We were laughing about how bumpy this road is and how much it needs to be paved.”
In late 2021, after having Covid and another concussion, the latest bump came his way in the form of the ‘twisties’ – the term for an athlete losing their sense of space and dimension when in the air, made famous by US gymnast Simone Biles at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
Kenworthy spent two months off the snow, only returning in early January – a month out from the start of the Beijing Games.
“It was like a perfect storm. I had got this really bad concussion, and then got Covid right on the tail end of recovering from the concussion, and after my isolation getting back into the gym and trying to get back to training, I just wasn’t really able to do anything,” he said.
“I was experiencing all sorts of weird neurological issues – I was nauseous, I was light-headed, I was dizzy. I was really not sure if it was because of Covid, or because of the concussion, because they so quickly coincided. Even the doctors couldn’t really tell.
“I came out to Colorado for the first two World Cups of the season and had a run where I got the twisties, or just got lost in the air.
“It’s a very scary feeling – it’s like vertigo when you don’t know which way is up and which way is down. But when the level of riding is where it is and that creates that huge margin of error, you don’t want to not know where you are.”
Beijing will be Kenworthy’s last Olympics, and last competition before he retires from the sport.
Also an actor who has appeared in American Horror Story and guest starred on RuPaul’s Drag Race, he does not know what his future holds, but is determined to leave skiing behind in style.
“I would just like to land the best run that I possibly can, the best way I possibly can, make it through to the finals and put down a run that I’m really, really happy with,” he said.
“It’s going to be my last competition, so I want to walk away with my head held high and know that I gave it everything.
“If that ends up with a gold medal, or a bronze medal or no medal, I just want to know that I did everything I could.”