At the Beijing Olympics, the question of freedom of expression arose on the athletes

BEIJING – The conversation at the Wukesong Sports Center veered dangerously from the growth and pace of women’s hockey to the question of political statements at the Olympic Games. Hilary Knight, getting ready to train for her fourth Olympics for the United States, paused, glanced around and chose her words carefully.

“I think it’s important to be able to put value on the things that are most dear to you, and that’s important to me,” Knight began. She then pivoted, saying her priority was Team America’s opening game.

“Right now,” she said, “we are particularly focused on Finland.”

As the start of competitions in the Winter Olympics were clouded by controversy over China’s human rights record, the issue of what participants could and couldn’t say became bigger than any other Olympic Games. association for many years.

Athletes have found themselves caught between activists urging them to use their celebrity to speak out and International Olympic Committee rules restricting what they can say and where.

The Chinese Communist Party has also warned that athletes should not only abide by Olympic regulations but also Chinese laws. Warnings are already part of a repression In the weeks leading up to Friday’s opening ceremony, critics say, has had a chilling effect on dissent inside and outside of the Olympic bubble.

“Athletes need to be held accountable for what they say,” Yang Yang, a senior official with the Beijing Organizing Committee and Olympic champion, said at a press conference this week.

China’s warnings have drawn criticism outside the country, including at the State Department in Washington, but internally, the response so far has been one of self-censorship that has been studied.

Several national teams, including the United States and Canada, have warned their athletes of the potential legal risk of speaking out – from both the International Olympic Committee and the Chinese justice system.

When three of Team New Zealand’s skiers appeared at a news conference in Beijing on Wednesday, a spokesman, Lewis Hampton, interrupted the question on the subject of the rules about political statements. . Athletes are there to talk about “performance,” he said, without objection.

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said she has been contacted by about two dozen Olympic athletes to discuss the lack of freedom of expression in Beijing.

“A lot of people who have never been to China before or have been, but are unsure of the circumstances or the environment, have been contacted with questions about what they can say or do, what interests them, what what she said.

Questions about China’s human rights record before the Olympics have been simmering for years, just as they did before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. They seemed to take on a new urgency last fall when Peng Shuai, professional tennis player and former Olympic athlete, accused a top political official forced her to have sex.

Peng’s post quickly disappeared from social media and her whereabouts remain a mystery, sparking global outrage. T-shirt with the slogan “Where is Peng Shuai?? ” were briefly banned by the Australian Open last month, before officials were satisfied and allowed spectators to wear them.

The question now is whether those shirts – or other forms of protest – will show up at the Beijing Olympics.

Within the Olympic community, the limits of political speech have become increasingly acrimonious, an increasingly acrimonious debate with the Olympics in China, frequently ranked among the world’s most repressive in events. survey on political freedom, religion and other rights.

At issue is Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which prohibits athletes or other participants from demonstrating or exhibiting “political, religious or racial propaganda” at Olympic events. One famous instance when it was used was during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith have been expelled from the Olympics after raising their hands on the podium to accept their medals while playing the US national anthem.

The rule was recently relaxed to allow athletes to express their views in the Olympic villages and surroundings as well as on the now-popular social media sites – but still not in competitions. contest or medal ceremony. The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee went further in 2020, announcing it would no longer punish athletes for participating in peaceful protests.

Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, defended the rule on Thursday, saying athletes should not disrupt the Olympic event than a Shakespearean actor would interrupt a “Hamlet” performance. ” to make a political statement.

“When you go to an event – actors in theatres, athletes in the Olympics – you have to respect the rules,” he said.

Political activism has surfaced at many international events, including last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, but no host nation is as strict as China in controlling political disagreements.

The Communist Party state of China has dismantled political freedoms in Hong Kong and Tibet, and launched a campaign of mass detention and re-education targeting Uighur Muslims in the western region. Xinjiang which the US claims is genocide.

Critics of China have called on athletes, sponsors and advertisers to speak out. Some have encouraged silent protests, such as skipping the opening ceremony.

“We urge Olympic athletes to take every opportunity to exercise their internationally recognized right to freedom of expression and speak out against the Chinese Communist Party’s ongoing genocide of Uighur Muslims. country,” the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group, said in the report.

The group cited the legacy of the Summer Olympics held 86 years ago in Germany by Adolf Hitler. “The world community must prevent a repeat of the 1936 Olympics, which were similarly used by a brutal dictatorship to whitewash its crimes against humanity.”

In fact, protests among Olympic athletes are rare, even among those who can sympathize with human rights causes. Most athletes are highly focused on their sport, spending years training for the chance to compete at the highest level.

A survey last year by the International Olympic Committee found that about two-thirds of athletes believed it was “inappropriate” to appear on the podium. Even many protest protests during the opening ceremony or during competitions.

EU Athletes, a federation representing more than 25,000 elite athletes in Europe, criticized the survey and said Rule 50 was “inconsistent with the human rights of athletes”.

“The idea that a sports organization can restrict or redefine the human rights of athletes is unacceptable,” the group said.

The organizers of Beijing 2022 have pledged to honor the spirit of the Olympic Charter that allows for free speech. In the “closed-loop” bubbles erected around the Olympic venues, authorities have created an open internet unrestricted by Chinese censorship.

“Athletes are role models to the world and there is a lot of attention on them,” said Ms. Yang, a Beijing Olympic official. “They have their opinion and if they want to share that, that’s important.”

During press conferences or interviews, she added, “athletes are free to express their opinions.”

So far, most seem reluctant to do so.

Knight, an Olympic hockey team forward, said the issue of political protest “isn’t something that necessarily goes away and you don’t think about it.” She added, “It’s definitely there.”

Joel Johnson, her team’s coach, says the players’ focus is on the sport. “Certainly, we don’t ignore anything that’s going on in the world, but our narrow approach is just focusing on what we can control and right now, that’s getting to the pitch. compete every day and prepare to compete.”

Chris Buckley and Andrew Keh contribution report. At the Beijing Olympics, the question of freedom of expression arose on the athletes

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