Drew Neilson spent much of his youth hitting the snowy slopes around the world in search of podiums.
He was also successful, winning the X-Games, the 2007 Crystal Globe as the snowboard cross world champion and selection to the Canadian Olympic team for Turin 2006 and Vancouver 2010.
But now, a decade after his retirement, he says he can’t help but talk about the Beijing 2022 Olympics and the International Olympic Committee’s willingness to partner with China, calling for a full Canadian boycott of games.
“I am really disgusted. I don’t even want to be called an Olympian anymore, ”he said from his home in North Vancouver.
“The IOC recognizes (…) human rights as enshrined in both the Fundamental Principles of the Olympic Charter and the Code of Ethics, and they say the IOC takes this responsibility very seriously. But do they do it? “
Neilson believes there is no way to reconcile professed Olympic ideals with China’s long list of troubling problems: the internment of Uyghurs and human rights abuses, aggressive expansionism, detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and the Peng Shuai case, among others.
The diplomatic boycott announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this month, he said, does not go far enough.
“I am not against the Olympic Games. I am against the defense of the organization that runs them and [the country] they are taking it, ”he said.
Neilson’s call for a boycott seems to be an outlier in the athlete community, especially among those caught up in the boycott of Canada of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Former Olympic team swimmer Eugene Gyorfi said Moscow was proof that boycotts didn’t work.
He was 16 in 1978 when his parents remortgage their Kitimat home to help pay for better training opportunities in Vancouver with the dream of competing in the Olympics. Their sacrifices paid off until politics took over.
Gyorfi was selected for the 1980 Olympic team just weeks after Canada announced it was following the United States in boycotting the Moscow Games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
“I still have the letter from the government announcing the boycott and how it wasn’t just the athletes. [It said] the farmers weren’t going to sell grain to the Russians, and that there were a number of measures that were really going to show the Russians, ”Gyorfi said.
“It didn’t make any difference… it didn’t make them withdraw their troops, and it didn’t push them to change their political policies.”
Forty years later, Gyorfi still has regrets: for his parents who never saw him on the Olympic stage, for his teammates who were close to winning medals, and for his own lost opportunity.
He said it was hard to understand a fellow Olympian arguing for a boycott.
“It is particularly unfortunate for an athlete who was able to participate and see the benefits of these competitions,” he said.
But Neilson maintains his position, believing that a Team Canada boycott of Beijing is the only morally correct option.
He feels so strong that he plans to ask the Canadian Olympic Committee to remove his name from the historic list and has even considered joining the protests against China and burning his Olympic equipment in solidarity.
“It puzzles me that people can look away from what’s going on in China, just so they can watch people play games for little pieces of metal,” he said. “It is really sad and unhappy.”