Swimmer sacrifices Olympics dream in stand against Myanmar’s junta

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/AFP/Getty Images

There are almost 1,000 athletes here for the swimming competition, which began on Saturday. Win Htet Oo is not among them. Having qualified for the 50m freestyle, Oo was ready to make his Olympic debut as Myanmar’s lone swimmer. No longer.

Oo is absent, in lockdown 8,000 kilometres away in Melbourne, after the military seized power in a coup in February. With the junta committing human rights atrocities and dismantling civilian governance – and the Myanmar Olympic Committee (MOC) among those government structures expected to fall in line – Oo felt he could not represent his nation’s flag.

Related: Australian swimmers eager to entertain on the eve of Olympics duel with US | Kieran Pender

“After the February coup I knew I couldn’t go to the Olympic Games,” he says. “It was a very easy decision to make, even after training for two decades for the chance to go to the Olympics.

“I just couldn’t bring myself to attend, if [the MOC] was being controlled by the military.”

Oo says this so plainly, almost nonchalantly, that it is hard to imagine the internal turmoil it must have caused him. Because of his principled stance, the 27-year-old will probably never make it to an Olympics. But for Oo, that is a small price to pay to resist the military regime.

“This is a military government accused of genocide and crimes against humanity. They are now the ones controlling the MOC,” he says. “That should be grounds for expulsion from the Olympic movement.”

Born and brought up abroad – he went to college in the US – Oo had always dreamed of representing Myanmar at the Olympics. Competing under its flag for the first time on home soil in 2013, at the Southeast Asian Games, was a proud moment. Securing a spot in Tokyo with a B qualifying time at the 2019 Southeast Asian Games even more so.

At the beginning of this year, the situation in Naypyidaw began to deteriorate. “We were watching closely,” he says. “The elections had just happened, there were some signs that the military might pull something, but it still came as a surprise to me and my family that they would completely remove the government.”

Myanmar’s democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was detained. The crisis has been compounded by Covid-19, which is rapidly spreading across the country.

Myanmar swimmer Win Htet Oo
Myanmar swimmer Win Htet Oo. Photograph: Sandra Sanders/Reuters

“The human rights situation is rapidly deteriorating as a devastating third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic hits Myanmar,” says Manny Maung, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“Since the coup, the junta has killed hundreds of civilians and detained thousands including medical professionals. The military has attacked doctors and ambulances and now they are looting medical equipment and hoarding oxygen, preventing civilians from accessing life-saving medical care.”

In March, grappling with the morality of representing such a regime on the global stage, Oo wrote to the International Olympic Committee asking them to distance themselves from the MOC and allow athletes to compete independently. The IOC declined.

“At that point I knew talking to the IOC wasn’t going to lead me anywhere, so I went public,” he says.

The Guardian asked the IOC why Oo’s request to compete as a neutral was denied and how the MOC could be seen as complying with Olympic values, given the military junta’s human rights violations. The IOC said that it was in regular contact with the MOC, which had “repeatedly confirmed its focus on the preparation of its team for the Olympic Games”.

While Oo is not in Tokyo, three other athletes have made the journey. In an open letter Oo recently penned to the trio, he implored them not to represent the junta-run MOC at the Games. “History will judge you for your actions,” he said.

Next Sunday, Oo will be at home in Melbourne, watching his event, the 50m freestyle splash and dash. “I know how hard it is for athletes to have trained through the pandemic,” he says.

“I want to see them parading at the ceremony and competing at the highest level. I am very proud of all those athletes – I’ll be watching.”

Oo wants the IOC to examine the MOC more carefully. “I’m hoping that after the Tokyo Games – they have plenty to focus on right now – but afterwards they might make an independent investigation and expel the MOC.”

In the absence of action from the IOC, Oo is hoping his own absence will encourage solidarity from his peers in the pool.

“I wish athletes would try to be aware of what is going on in my country,” he says. “That’s why I have made this stance – to let people know what is happening. That’s all I can ask; that they take the time to learn what is going on in Myanmar.

“I hope they can show solidarity with the people of Myanmar in whatever way they can.”

It is a small ask from someone who has sacrificed their Olympic dreams. While an appearance at the Paris Games in 2024 is not impossible, Oo knows that the latest struggle for democracy in Myanmar will not triumph overnight.

“It all depends whether the military relinquishes power in Myanmar,” he says. “That is the only way I can see myself competing for Myanmar.

“Until the MOC is fully independent of the military, until the struggle against the military dictatorship succeeds, I don’t see myself representing Myanmar at the Olympics. That might take more than three years.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting