Juggling free speech for Beijing Olympics

As Britain shifts position, U.S. Olympians learn they can say what they want — in certain areas
By Philip Hersh, Special to The Times

A member of the U.S. Olympic team would face no official rebuke for wearing a T-shirt that said, "Free Tibet," while walking the streets of Beijing during the 2008 Summer Games.

Wear that shirt in the Olympic Village or any sports venue, and the athlete might be on the next plane home after violating the international Olympic Charter.

U.S. athletes can criticize China's human rights record if asked about it at any time or place -- as long as it isn't at a news conference specifically organized for that purpose in an "Olympic area."

Athletes from other countries may have to be even more careful about what they say and where they say it.

Confusing rules and the desire of some countries to avoid anything that might offend their Chinese hosts have created both misunderstanding and attempts by some national Olympic committees to censor their athletes in China this summer.

The latest controversy involves Britain, which had drafted a clause telling its athletes they "are not to comment on any politically sensitive issues" in an agreement 2008 British Olympians are to sign.

Facing a firestorm of criticism after a British newspaper revealed the clause Sunday, the British Olympic Assn. immediately said it would redraft the agreement. Simon Clegg, BOA chief executive, said his organization had no "desire to restrict athletes from freedom of speech, and the final agreement will reflect this."

In the last two weeks, the Belgian and New Zealand Olympic committees also had drawn strong condemnation from human rights organizations for apparent attempts to muzzle their athletes in Beijing.

USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel said no U.S. athlete would be reprimanded or censured for expressing a critical opinion about China's human rights record, either before or during the Olympics, so long as it is done in an appropriate setting.

The code of conduct that 2008 U.S. Olympians will sign asks them only to respect the terms of the Olympic Charter.

"We will not prohibit free speech," Seibel said, "but in speaking with our athletes, most seem to feel it would be highly inappropriate to use the Games as a forum to make a political statement."

The Olympic Charter, in longstanding rule 51 (3), says, "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues, or other areas."

The Belgian Olympic Committee has extended that to include what athletes say in such places about issues such as Darfur, China's role in Tibet and what Amnesty International calls China's crackdown on human rights defenders and repression of spiritual and religious groups.

"Our athletes are allowed to have freedom of speech, but not in Olympic areas," said Guido de Bondt, secretary general of the Belgian Olympic Committee. "We think there are other places where they can express their opinions. China is a large country."

New Zealand Olympic Committee spokesperson Ashley Abbott said via e-mail that New Zealand Olympians always have signed an agreement with "reasonable limitations on what they can and can't say. . . . It is not a question of where views are expressed, it is a question of making statements to the media or public demonstrations that may have a negative effect on the NZOC or the IOC [International Olympic Committee] and that are not in keeping with the Olympic Charter."

Sun Weide, deputy communications director of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee, said in a recent interview: "The Olympic Games are a celebration of sport, not a political convention. We are strongly opposed to any attempt to politicize the Beijing Games."

Spokesmen for the Italian and Spanish Olympic committees said they had adopted no restrictive policies for athletes in Beijing. Mexican Olympic Committee spokesman Juan Landa said, "There have been no discussions on the subject."

Before Britain backed away from restricting its athletes' free speech, Russian Olympic Committee spokesman Gennady Shvets said he supported the British idea but that Russia had yet to discuss what policy it would have for Beijing.

"This decision is justified and a good example for others to follow," Shvets said. "It doesn't mean that we will do it. But no one needs conflict during the Olympic Games, and not being careful with respect to what the athletes say could lead to problems."

The impact of Olympic Charter rule 51 would be to prohibit an action like the black-gloved protest U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos made on the 200-meter medal stand at the 1968 Olympics. The charter says violations may lead to disqualification or withdrawal of accreditation of the person involved.

The IOC has no intention of penalizing athletes who respond frankly to questions about politically sensitive issues in China, according to spokesperson Giselle Davies.

"Freedom of speech, per se, is a value the IOC upholds," Davies said. "Should a journalist ask an athlete a question, the athlete should respond as he or she sees fit.

"But that does not include making proactive statements or gestures, be they religious, political or other. There is a time and place for those, and that is not within the sporting arena of the Olympic Games."

The IOC often is criticized for being disingenuous when it tries to separate politics from the Olympics.

That criticism has intensified because IOC officials said when their members elected China seven years ago as 2008 host that they hoped the decision would catalyze change.

"All the members are well aware that this election has a political significance, and for all the members I have spoken to, human rights is an issue," IOC vice president Thomas Bach of Germany said in 2001.

"Some will feel you should not give the Olympic Games to a country unless it lives up to a certain standard of human rights. Others will feel awarding the Games may help to liberalize a country."

When asked to apply pressure for reform, the IOC has chosen to emphasize its limited power.

"We are not a government, we are not the representative of all the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] of the world," IOC President Jacques Rogge told Reuters last August. "We stand for human rights, we stand for strict social values, but we are only a sports organization."

Jim Scherr, the USOC chief executive, shares that point of view.

"As an organization that is not a political one, we certainly don't believe our role is to pressure the Chinese government," Scherr said.

Philip Hersh covers Olympic sports for The Times and the Chicago Tribune. Tribune correspondents Oscar Avila, Alex Rodriguez and Christine Spolar contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 LA Times

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