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Gus Kenworthy: “I can’t keep my mouth shut,” on China’s human rights record

Gus Kenworthy
Gus Kenworthy (Photo: YouTube)

The Winter Olympics opening ceremony took place in Beijing today. China has warned visiting athletes to “be responsible” if they are considering speaking out on political issues whilst in the country.

One athlete who appears to be uncowed by the warning is Gus Kenworthy. The out athlete, who is competing for Great Britain in the Men’s Freeski Halfpipe, has been speaking to several British press outlets this week in the run-up to the games.

“I’m probably a dumb ass for doing it but I can’t keep my mouth shut,” he told Sportsmail. “I don’t think that China should be allowed to host. I don’t think that any nation should be allowed to host the Olympics, this gathering point of the world, with everyone in the world fixated on you and pouring in money and attention, if you have atrocious human rights stances.”

Related: Gus Kenworthy confirms he’s “taken”, talks more about why he switched to Team GB

China has faced multiple criticisms from human rights groups over the way its authoritarian regime treats citizens. This includes the persecution of Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region. It’s also cracking down on opposition in Hong Kong.

Although gay sex is legal, China does not recognize same-sex relationships. Last year, the Chinese government banned the representation of “sissy men” from TV, and there’s been a crackdown on LGBTQ groups on social media platforms. Last week, Grindr disappeared from app stores in the country.

“Heading to Sochi [in 2014] we had media training specifically about not speaking out against Russia and the fact that there was anti-LGBTQ legislature in place,” Kenworthy went on to say. “I was in the closet at the time and so I feel like I didn’t have the gall to say anything. I regretted it.”

Kenworthy came out as gay in 2015.

“I feel like we are all given a voice and it’s important to use it. I just feel like since the Olympics is about the world coming together, it should be about more than money, and that a country shouldn’t have the opportunity to host or sometimes even compete if they have poor stances on human rights issues.

Kenworthy made similar comments to the Guardian.

“The IOC has the power to really make a positive difference and if you’re a country with horrible human rights issues and bad stances on LGBTQ issues, you shouldn’t be allowed that giant honor and prestige of hosting the Olympics. And in countries where homosexuality is punishable by death or jail, you shouldn’t be allowed to compete in the Olympics at all.”

Asked if he supported the US and UK governments’ diplomatic boycotts of the games (meaning they send no political representatives), Kenworthy said, “Yes, I do but I don’t think it does anything. It sends a message but it doesn’t create any actual change.

“Real, systemic change happens at the very top with the IOC. This should be in terms of which countries are allowed to host and which countries are allowed to participate, and certain criteria should be met in order to be eligible for either of those.”

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Another gay sporting figure to speak out against China’s human rights record is skater Adam Rippon. Although he’s retired as a competitor, he’s coaching American Mariah Bell at Beijing.

“I think the Chinese are going to put on an amazing Games and I think they are going to make sure everyone is as safe as possible but when it comes to human rights, we’re entering a Communist country,” Rippon told Reuters.

“And I think that when we’re picking Olympic cities this needs to be something that is more regulated by the IOC. This is a position that they’ve put a lot of people in.

“It makes me think of being rewarded for bad behavior… in light of all of the human rights violations in China, it does make you question why were they still allowed to host these Games?”