After the military seized power, Myanmar swimmer Win Htet Oo knew that many things were coming to an end, while others were just beginning.
The Southeast Asian country was no longer a democracy, but the growing resistance to the coup might also mean a revolution that could end the cycle of military rule. He also realized that his cherished dream of representing the hopes, aspirations, and ideals of a new Myanmar on the world’s top athletic stage would have to be put on hold.
But he could help in other ways by voluntarily withdrawing from Olympic consideration, a high-profile act of dissent after his request to participate as an independent athlete was rejected.
“I knew my sporting aspirations would be over because, now, the military will control the Myanmar Olympic Committee so I decided I must now do what I can to support the protestors and people struggling for democracy,” he told VICE World News. “I wanted to show the people that I would sacrifice the ultimate dream of all athletes to show solidarity.”
And so the 27-year-old swimmer at the peak of his career will not be among Myanmar’s small contingent of Olympians in the parade of nations in Tokyo on Friday. Instead, he’ll sit out the Games from the sidelines in Australia, where he lives, works, and trains. The pandemic had already dampened his enthusiasm for the delayed competition. But the coup, he said, destroyed it.
“I wanted to show the people that I would sacrifice the ultimate dream of all athletes to show solidarity.”
He first explained his motivation not to participate through a lengthy statement posted on his Facebook page in April, some two months after soldiers arrested civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1, upending Myanmar’s halting democratic transition from five decades of military rule. Authorities briefly allowed peaceful protests, but they resorted to more lethal methods as crowds grew nationwide.
In the post, Win Htet Oo highlighted the killing of Myanmar protester Ma Kyal Sin, a 19-year-old Taekwondo practitioner nicknamed “Angel” who was gunned down by security forces at a demonstration in March. She was photographed on the streets of Mandalay right before her death, and the image ricocheted across the internet and the world, inspiring countless others to defy the regime.
The junta has now killed more than 900 people in its crackdown, according to the non-profit Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which has kept track of deaths and detentions in the aftermath of the coup.
“It was very easy to make the decision after reading about Ma Kyal Sin and other martyrs. They have given their lives. Compared to their sacrifice, my own sacrifice is nothing. The martyrs will never see Myanmar free, but I still live, and I will aspire so that I may see Myanmar free one day,” he said.
“It was very easy to make the decision after reading about Ma Kyal Sin and other martyrs. They have given their lives. Compared to their sacrifice, my own sacrifice is nothing.”
He has spent the last few months giving interviews to media outlets, organizing a petition, and using his platform to call out the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for not expelling Myanmar’s Olympic organization from the Games. Win Htet Oo has also slammed the IOC’s political neutrality, which it sees as crucial to bringing athletes from around the world together in one place for competition.
In emailed comments to VICE World News, the IOC said it is in regular contact with the Myanmar Olympic Committee as the officially recognized National Olympic Committee (NOC) for the country.
“Over the past months, the NOC has repeatedly confirmed its focus on the preparation of its team for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 and that any athlete qualified would be selected for participation,” it said, referring to the official title of the event which uses the originally scheduled year.
It added that according to its information, Win Htet Oo "has not obtained a quota for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020," which means he could not be selected by Myanmar's national olympic committee.
But the swimmer said he withdrew from consideration before Myanmar even put its Olympic team together and that his times from the 50-metre freestyle in the 2019 Southeast Asia Games would have made him an obvious choice.
He also holds national records and said that out of all eligible athletes from the country, “I had the most merit to make the team,” along with Myanmar badminton star Thet Htar Thuzar. The Myanmar Olympic Committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The high stakes in the fight over the future of Myanmar make for an extremely difficult balancing act for athletes and other prominent individuals, who may face either charges from the military for vocal opposition or backlash from the pro-democracy movement for not making a clear show of support.
The Olympic journey of the badminton player is a case in point. On July 6, Thet Htar Thuzar posted on Facebook that her “long-time dream” had come true and she had been selected to go to Tokyo. She also suggested the experience could serve as a source of unity for the country.
“I want people to smile at least for a while when everyone is stressed in difficult times,” she wrote. “I will represent all the Myanmar people in the best way. My success will be the success of the Myanmar people.”
But while some cheered her on, many in the comments section were not pleased.
"If you lose, you lose. If you win, you lose. Because Myanmar people lose faith in you,” one person wrote, with others expressing similar sentiments. She did not reply to a request for comment from VICE World News.
As excitement over the Games builds, Win Htet Oo said he still has no regrets about missing out, despite years of a grueling training regimen involving hours in the pool and gym while working two jobs.
“I feel nothing. I do not feel sad,” he said.
Now he is dedicating time to collaborating with artists to sell scarves and other accessories as part of a broader fundraising effort to provide relief aid and to help Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement. He will continue to train and compete, with an eye on representing the country in the Paris Games in 2024.
But on one condition.
“I will only do so if Myanmar is free.”