None of the athletes from Afghanistan who competed in the Tokyo Summer Games returned to their homeland, the result of the International Olympic Committee’s ongoing effort to protect members of the Olympic community in a country where the Taliban is in control again after two decades following the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
About 100 Afghans have received help to relocate so far, IOC President Thomas Bach told reporters during a recent virtual news conference, including two athletes now training outside Afghanistan for the upcoming 2022 Winter Games in Beijing and the first IOC member from Afghanistan, Samira Asghari.
Asghari, 27, a member of the Afghanistan women’s national basketball team who joined the IOC in 2018 as the organization’s youngest member, “is safe and she has been also instrumental in these humanitarian efforts,” Bach said, declining to offer specifics he warned could put her and others in danger.
“Please understand that we cannot go into more details in this respect. We have to take into consideration the safety and security of the other members of the Olympic community in Afghanistan. These issues have to be dealt with, with the necessary discretion,” Bach said.
He said the “first phase” of the effort started on the final day of the Tokyo Summer Games last month at the request of the Afghanistan national Olympic committee and humanitarian visas continue to be sought, especially for the women and girls likely to be most at risk under the Taliban.
Other Olympic organizations around the world are involved, including the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, which has been “in close communication” with both the Afghan Olympic committee and the IOC, according to spokesman Jon Mason.
Bach said the situation will continue to be monitored “very closely,” and at least for now, Afghanistan’s Olympic committee continues to be recognized under the Taliban, which had previously enforced an interpretation of Islamic law that forbids women to study or work and banned outside influences.
What wasn’t addressed by the leader of the Switzerland-based organization, which is expected to decide in the coming months whether Salt Lake City hosts another Winter Games, is the controversy surrounding how America’s longest war ended with the abrupt collapse of Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed government and a tumultuous exit.
More than 100,000 American citizens as well as Afghans who assisted U.S. troops during the war were evacuated by the military in the weeks leading up to the self-imposed Aug. 30 deadline. But others were left behind and suicide bombings killed 13 U.S. troops and wounded even more Afghans.
“There’s no question that the U.S.’s image took a hit,” said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. But the political science professor said that doesn’t mean America shouldn’t continue to hold sway with IOC members.
“The IOC, even if it’s disappointed and frustrated with what’s happened in Afghanistan, would still see the United States as a major leader in the world and would still see the support of the United States as key to the success of the Olympic movement more broadly,” Karpowitz said.
As the first major international event after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City showcased the IOC’s goal of “building a peaceful and better world” by bringing nations together for a celebration of athletic achievements.
Now, in the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan sparked by 9/11, the IOC has a much different mission, “just keeping those athletes safe,” Karpowitz said. “That’s not likely to unify the world in the same sort of way that the highest aspirations of the Olympic movement aim to do.”
Backers of bringing the Olympics back to Utah have been keeping a low profile while waiting for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee to decide whether to go after the 2030 or 2034 Winter Games, a decision they hope will come before the next Olympics begin in February.
At least three other cities, all also former Olympic hosts, are in the running for 2030 — Sapporo, Japan; Vancouver, Canada; and Barcelona, Spain; and Ukraine is also expressing interest in hosting a Winter Games. Under the IOC’s new, low-key bid process, there’s no set time for the selection to be made.
The head of what’s still known as the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, which were postponed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and struggled with the virus, is already campaigning publicly for Sapporo. But Utah bidders have little to say about the effect of the U.S. actions in Afghanistan.
“When we are collectively in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, we don’t worry for a moment about the impact to a bid,” said Fraser Bullock, president and CEO of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games, focusing instead on those being affected. “We all hope the very best possible outcome for each of them.”
Another bid committee official, Jeff Robbins, the president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission, said the strategy is to continue to show the world the state remains ready to host major events during tough times, just like organizers did in 2002.
Robbins said Utah has been able to safely hold some 40 sporting events since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the launch last month in Salt Lake City of the 2021 Street League Skateboarding championship tour featuring Olympic athletes who competed in Tokyo, where the sport made its debut.
“We can’t control what we can’t control,” Robbins said of the events in Afghanistan. Instead, he said, “we’re being proactive. We’re hosting events when it’s difficult. We’re doing it in a safe way. I think that’s the best way for us, to lead by example, not get pulled into geopolitical or other political kinds of activities.”
There’s been no backlash against the United States because of the wind down of the war in his dealings with the sports world, Robbins said.
“Not at all. In fact, because I think that when you look at the athletes competing, most of them are apolitical. They just want to compete,” he said. “In terms of Afghanistan, I haven’t had anybody say anything about the U.S. position.”
Politics is already a part of the next Olympics in Beijing, where China’s record on human rights is being challenged by many, including Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. Romney, the leader of the 2002 Winter Games, has called for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics.
Karpowitz sees the spotlight shifting from Afghanistan to China’s “very serious human rights issues,” which include what Romney described as “exacting genocide” against Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities along with suppressing dissent in Hong Kong.
While China and other countries may challenge the moral authority of the United States on the issue because of the outcome of the Afghan war, the professor said the United States isn’t likely to lose its position as a world leader in advocating for the protection of basic rights.
“There’s no question these sorts of events damage the American image and our ability to push for human rights more broadly,” he said. “But by the time the Beijing Olympics come, the world’s attention will likely be far more focused on what’s happening in China than the situation in Afghanistan, unless things deteriorate even more.”
Afghanistan shouldn’t be an issue in the new bid process that’s supposed to prioritize preparedness over politics, said Ed Hula, founder and editor emeritus of Around the Rings, a longtime international source of Olympic news that started in Atlanta and is now based in Buenos Aires.
“I just don’t think there’s much occasion to link something like this, to link Afghanistan, to whether the U.S. should get the Games again,” Hula said, adding that there “may be some dispute with the way the evacuation or the withdrawal was handled but none of it goes to question the integrity of the United States.”