February 15, 2008 / 9:39 AM / 12 years ago

Athletes resist pressure to play politics in Beijing

BEIJING (Reuters) - Britain’s climb-down last weekend looks to have ended attempts to gag athletes at the Beijing Olympics but there is growing resentment among top Olympians about pressure on them to speak out on political issues.

Two Chinese police officers keep watch near the Beijing Olympic countdown clock near Tiananmen Square in Beijing February 13, 2008. REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV

The British Olympic Association had wanted its athletes to sign a contract forbidding them from commenting on “any politically sensitive issues” during the Games but were forced to reconsider after strong criticism.

The National Olympic Committees of countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, Japan and Spain have confirmed they will not restrict what their athletes say in Beijing over and above the requirements of the Olympic Charter.

“It is certainly not our intent to tell athletes how to think or what they can say,” said Chris Rudge, head of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

“We hope they use common sense ... They are bright, smart men and women and we have confidence they will conduct themselves in manner that makes Canadians proud.”

Some athletes have the opposite concern.

They resent being called on to challenge China’s human rights record or even to follow film director Steven Spielberg, who quit as an adviser to Beijing because of the host country’s policy on the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Italian kayak champion Josefa Idem, who will be competing in her seventh Games in Beijing, admits she was initially against the awarding of the Olympics to “an undemocratic country like China”.

“They could have avoided giving the Games to China but now that they’ve decided to go there, I’m against applying pressure for political goals using the skin of the athletes,” the German-born 43-year-old said.

Olympic tennis champion Justine Henin earlier this week said sport and politics “must remain separate”.

“I am of course concerned about the politics surrounding the Games,” the Belgian said.

“But I am going there to play tennis not play politics.”

Five-times Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson said it was “a tremendous amount of pressure” to place on young athletes and suggested the media should not question competitors about political issues.

“Many of these athletes have ... no connection to (China) other than they will compete there and represent their own country during what should be one of the greatest moments of their lives,” he wrote in a British newspaper.

“It should not be assumed that because an athlete competes in Beijing and does not speak out about China’s record that they agree with it or that they don’t care.”

FREE T-SHIRTS

There is no doubt that rights groups will be targeting Olympians — one this week offered to provide “Free Tibet” t-shirts to any athlete at the Games.

“Just let us know your size,” said the Free Tibet Campaign release.

The Olympic Charter forbids any “kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda ... in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas”.

“We will rely on the Olympic Charter as our guide,” United States Olympic Committee (USOC) spokesman Darryl Seibel said.

“We do expect our delegation to comply with the Olympic Charter but there will not be any restrictions or prohibitions on free speech imposed by the USOC.”

China is optimistic that athletes will respect their host when they come to Beijing for the August 8-24 Games.

“We enthusiastically welcome the world’s athletes to come and compete in China,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said on Thursday.

“We hope they can interact with the people of China ... We hope they have a happy time in China. I believe the people of the world are kind-hearted.”

(Additional reporting by Julian Linden in Sydney, Steve Keating in Toronto, Paul Virgo in Rome, Ben Blanchard, Simon Baskett in Madrid, Darren Ennis in Brussels and Mitch Phillips in London)

Editing by Peter Rutherford

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