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In February, I will represent the United States at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. I am a bobsledder, and this will be my fourth Olympic competition. At the last three, I won a pair of silver medals and a bronze. This will likely be my final Olympics – and my last chance at a gold medal.
It’s also the most controversial Olympics I’ve competed in due to the host country, China. In late 2021, the White House announced a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics, which means that no American government officials will join us in Beijing.
Others said that didn’t go far enough. They’ve urged people not to watch the Olympics. They’ve told my fellow Team USA athletes and I to boycott. And they’ve criticized the companies that sponsor us.
Training for this around the clock
Imagine what it feels like to be told that you shouldn’t compete in an event for which you’ve trained for years. Or what it feels like to have your supporters’ generosity attacked. Or to wonder if anyone will be watching when you’re competing.
MORE OLYMPICS: Full coverage of Team USA
My husband is an Olympic bobsledder, too. For the last several years, we trained round-the-clock for this opportunity. We trained through a pandemic. I prepared for this Olympics after giving birth to our son. And all that while questions hovered about whether the Games would go forward at all. This event means more to us – and dozens of other Team USA competitors – than many will ever appreciate.
I understand the concerns about human rights and free expression in China, but I’d offer that the best way I can send a message about that is by competing in the Olympic Games. I’m a mother to a special needs child – a child whose very right to life could have been at risk if he had been born in other countries. To go to Beijing and compete – as an American, a woman, a person of color and as a special needs parent – says more than any boycott could.
I understand people want us and our backers to speak out about the host city decision. But sponsors and athletes didn’t choose Beijing. Neither of us play a role in who hosts the Games; neither of us are the right objects for anger on that subject.
I understand that some feel sponsors have a special responsibility. But these critics miss what sponsors actually do for American athletes. Let me explain. My husband and I and hundreds of others wear “Team USA” uniforms, so people assume that the US government funds us. Not so. Most American Olympians work full time or part time in addition to their Olympic training. And we all depend on companies to pay for training, equipment and competition fees.
Sports is the home of sportsmanship
For my family and many others, sponsor support isn’t a bonus or a nice-to-have – it’s a need-to-have. One example: In 2020, sponsor support enabled me to take time to have a child. If you’re a competitive athlete, not competing means not earning prize money – there’s no “paid parental leave” on the bobsled circuit. Because we saved some of our sponsor funds from the last Olympics, I was able to give birth to my son and take time to recover.
In their criticisms of Team USA athletes and our supporters, figures in the media and in politics undervalue our sweat and effort and undermine the unifying spirit of the Olympics. It’s a bond I’ve seen firsthand. Here’s what it looks like: Even after intense, tough, nail-biting competition, athletes from around the world will approach one another, shake hands and show respect. Sports is the home of sportsmanship – a quality that, it seems, the world could use more of today than ever before.
And so a final ask for my final Olympics: I hope you’ll watch us compete. I hope you’ll cheer us on. And I hope you’ll see over the airwaves the unity and camaraderie that I’ve been lucky enough to experience in person.
Elana Meyers Taylor is an American Olympic bobsledder. She is a three-time Olympic medalist and will compete in her fourth Olympics at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Olympics have athletes thinking about human rights, COVID tests