Beijing backs gag order following uproar in UK

Beijing Olympic organisers said on Monday they backed a ban on political protests by athletes attending this year’s Games, amid an uproar over an effort to silence British athletes.

Following widespread anger, the British Olympic Association (BOA) backed down on Sunday on its plan to prevent British competitors from commenting on ”politically sensitive issues” surrounding the August 8 to 24 Summer Games.

Beijing Olympic organising committee spokesperson Sun Weide said he had no direct comment to make on the controversy swirling in Britain.

But he said all athletes were expected to follow the Olympic Charter, drawn up by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which outlaws political acts.

”I hope that the Olympic spirit will be followed and also the relevant IOC regulations will be followed in every regard,” said Sun when asked for comment about the issue of political protests.

China is believed to be concerned that some of the 10 000 athletes expected here for the Games could be used by human rights activists and other groups to stage protests designed to draw attention to their causes.

But according to a number of national Olympic committees in Asia, China has put no pressure on countries to silence their Olympians and Sun insisted Beijing wanted to welcome all competitors.

”Beijing welcomes all athletes from around the world to participate in the Beijing Olympic Games and we have been trying hard to create the best possible conditions for athletes to do so,” he said.

The controversy erupted in Britain after the Mail on Sunday newspaper reported that the BOA had threatened that any athlete who refused to sign the gag order would not be allowed to travel to China.

Any British participant who signed the order and then spoke out during the Games would be sent home, according to the initial plan.

The controversial clause in the contract stated that athletes ”are not to comment on any politically sensitive issues”.

It then refers to section 51 of the Olympic Charter, which says: ”No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

Following the uproar in Britain, the BOA said it would have another look at the wording of the controversial clause.

BOA chief executive Simon Clegg said on Sunday the ”interpretation of one part of the draft BOA’s team members’ agreement appears to have gone beyond the provision of the Olympic Charter”.

Though some countries are known to have told their athletes to respect the charter while in Beijing, none appear to have gone as far as the BOA.

Several national Olympic committees contacted on Monday said they had no agreements limiting free speech and denied there was any pressure from China to do so.

”Maybe the British are very different and they speak out more,” said Chris Chan, secretary general of the Singapore National Olympic Council.

”But I don’t think our athletes or even those from South-East Asia dare to speak their minds.”

The Thai Olympic Committee said athletes automatically knew not to comment on sensitive matters.

Issues considered politically sensitive in communist-ruled China range from human rights, religious freedom, Tibet, Taiwan to Beijing’s role in Sudan.

In response to rising criticism at home and from overseas, the Chinese government has tightened its grip on critics, with a number of opponents of the regime detained in recent months.

International press freedom groups have accused China of failing to live up to a promise that it would grant unfettered access to the country for foreign journalists covering the Games. — AFP



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