THere are nearly 1,000 athletes here for the swim competition, which started on Saturday. Win Htet Oo is not among them. Having qualified for the 50m freestyle, Oo was set to make his Olympic debut as Myanmar’s only swimmer. No more.
Oo is absent, locked 8,000 kilometers away in Melbourne, after the military seized power in a coup in February. With the junta committing human rights atrocities and dismantling civilian government, and the Myanmar Olympic Committee (MOC) among the government structures expected to line up, Oo felt he could not represent his nation’s flag.
“After the February coup, I knew I couldn’t go to the Olympics,” he says. “It was a very easy decision to make, even after training for two decades for a chance to go to the Olympics.
“I just didn’t dare to attend, yeah [the MOC] it was being controlled by the military. “
Oo says this so clearly, almost nonchalantly, that it’s hard to imagine the inner tower that must have caused him. Due to his principled stance, the 27-year-old will likely never make it to the 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. Now they are the ones who control the MOC, “he says.” That should be grounds for expulsion from the Olympic movement. “
Born and raised abroad, went to college in the US, Oo had always dreamed of representing Myanmar at the Olympics. Competing under their flag for the first time at home in 2013 at the Southeast Asian Games was a proud moment. Securing a spot in Tokyo with a qualifying time B at the 2019 Southeast Asian Games even longer.
Earlier 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 do something, but it was still a surprise to me and my family that they would completely remove the government.”
The democratically elected leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, was detained. The crisis has been exacerbated by Covid-19, which is rapidly spreading across the country.
“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 army has attacked doctors and ambulances and is now looting medical equipment and stockpiling oxygen, preventing civilians from accessing medical care for them. save life. “
In March, grappling with the morality of representing such a regime on the world stage, Oo wrote to the International Olympic Committee asking them to distance themselves from the MOC and allow athletes to compete independently. The IOC refused.
“At that point I knew that talking to the IOC would get me nowhere, so I made it public,” he says.
The Guardian asked the IOC why Oo’s request to compete as neutral was denied and how the MOC could be considered to be compliant with Olympic values, given the military junta’s human rights violations. The IOC said it was in regular contact with the MOC, which had “repeatedly confirmed its focus on preparing its team for the Olympics.”
While Oo is not in Tokyo, three other athletes have made the trip. In an open letter Oo recently wrote to the trio, he implored them not to represent the board-led MOC at the Games. “History will judge you for your actions,” he said.
Next Sunday, Oo will be at his home in Melbourne, watching his event, the 50 meter splash and dash freestyle. “I know how difficult it is for athletes to train during the pandemic,” he says.
“I want to see them parade at the ceremony and compete at the highest level. I am very proud of all those athletes, I will be watching them. “
Oo wants the IOC to take a closer look at the MOC. “I hope that after the Tokyo Games, they have a lot to focus on right now, but then they could do an independent investigation and expel the MOC.”
In the absence of action from the IOC, Oo hopes that his own absence will foster solidarity from his teammates in the pool.
“I wish the athletes would try to be aware of what is happening in my country,” he says. “That is why I have taken this position, so that people know what is happening. That’s all I can ask for; take the time to learn what is happening in Myanmar.
“I hope they can show solidarity with the people of Myanmar in any way that they can.”
It’s a little question 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 fight for democracy in Myanmar will not triumph overnight.
“It all depends on whether the military gives up power in Myanmar,” he says. “That is the only way I can see myself competing for Myanmar.
“Until the MOC is completely independent from the military, until the fight against the military dictatorship is successful, I don’t see myself representing Myanmar at the Olympics. That could take more than three years. “