At the Beijing Olympics, the question of freedom of expression hangs over the athletes

BEIJING — The conversation at the Wukesong Sports Center has veered dangerously from the growth and speed of women’s hockey to the issue of political statements at the Olympics. Hilary Knight, who was finishing practice ahead of her fourth Olympic appearance for the United States, stopped, looked around and chose her words carefully.

“I think it’s important to be able to value the things you hold most dear, and that’s something that’s important to me,” Knight began. Then she pivoted, saying her priority was Team USA’s opener.

“Right now,” she said, “we are focusing specifically on Finland.”

As competitions began in a Winter Olympics overshadowed by controversy over China’s human rights record, the question of what participants can and cannot say has arisen more than at any Olympic Games for years.

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

The Chinese Communist Party has also warned that athletes are subject not only to Olympic rules, but also to Chinese law. The warnings were part of a crackdown in the weeks leading up to Friday’s opening ceremony that critics say has had a chilling effect on dissent inside and outside the Olympic bubble.

“Athletes should be responsible for what they say,” Yang Yang, a senior Beijing organizing committee official and Olympic champion, told a news conference this week.

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

Some national teams, including the United States and Canada, have warned their athletes that there is potential legal risk in speaking out – both from the International Olympic Committee and China’s legal system.

When three Team New Zealand skiers appeared at a press conference in Beijing on Wednesday, a spokesman, Lewis Hampton, cut a question on the subject of the political statements rules. The athletes were there to talk about “performance”, he said, not to protest.

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

“Many people who have never been to China before or have been, but are unsure of the circumstances or the environment, have asked questions about what they can say or do, what concerns, what the reactions of the authorities might be,” she said.

Questions about China’s human rights record ahead of the Games have been simmering for years, as they did ahead of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. last fall when Peng Shuai, the professional tennis player and former Olympian, accused a senior politician of forcing her into a sexual relationship.

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

The question now is whether these shirts – or other forms of protest – will surface at the Beijing Games.

Within the Olympic community, the boundaries of political discourse have become increasingly contested, a debate that has intensified with the Games in China, which consistently ranks among the world’s most repressive in surveys of political freedoms. , religious and others.

At issue is Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which prohibits athletes or other participants from demonstrating or displaying “political, religious or racial propaganda” at Olympic events. A well-known case when invoked was during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. US sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith have been expelled from the Games after raising their fists on the medal podium while performing the US national anthem.

The rule was recently relaxed to allow athletes to express their views in and around Olympic villages and on now ubiquitous social media sites – but still not during competitions or medal ceremonies. The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee went further in 2020, saying it would no longer punish athletes who participated in peaceful protests.

Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, defended the rule on Thursday, saying athletes should no more disrupt an Olympic event than a Shakespearean actor would interrupt a performance of “Hamlet” to make a political statement.

“When you engage in an event – the actor in a theatre, the athlete in a Games – you have to play by the rules,” he said.

Political activism has surfaced at many international events, including the Tokyo Olympics last summer, but no other host country has been as strict as China in controlling political dissent.

The Chinese Communist Party state has crushed political freedoms in Hong Kong and Tibet and carried out a massive campaign of detention and re-education targeting Uyghur Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang that the United States has declared genocidal.

Chinese critics called on athletes, sponsors and advertisers to speak out. Some encouraged silent protests, such as skipping the opening ceremony.

“We urge Olympic athletes to seize every opportunity to exercise their internationally recognized right to freedom of expression and to speak out against the ongoing genocide of Uyghur Muslims by the Communist Party of China,” the Council on American-Islamic Relations said. , an advocacy group. A declaration.

The group invoked the legacy of the Summer Olympics held 86 years ago in Adolf Hitler’s Germany. “The world community must prevent a repeat of the 1936 Olympics, which were also 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 focus zealously on their sport, having devoted years of training for the chance to compete at the highest level.

A poll last year by the International Olympic Committee found that around two-thirds of athletes felt it was “not appropriate” to stand on the medal podium. Even more opposing protests during the opening ceremony or during the competitions themselves.

EU Athletes, a federation that says it represents more than 25,000 elite athletes in Europe, criticized the investigation and said Rule 50 was “not compatible with the human rights of athletes”.

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

Beijing 2022 organizers are committed to honoring the spirit of the Olympic Charter to enable freedom of expression. Within the “closed loop” bubbles erected around Olympic venues, authorities have created an open internet unrestrained by Chinese censorship.

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

During press conferences or interviews, she added, “the 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 is “not something that necessarily goes away and you don’t think about it.” She added: “It’s there for sure.”

Joel Johnson, his team’s coach, said the players were focusing on the sport. “Certainly, we are not ignorant of anything that is happening in the world, but our narrow approach is just to focus on what we can control, and right now that is coming to the rink every day and preparing for player.”

Chris Buckley and Andrew Keh contributed report.

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