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Olympic Athletes Cautioned Against Criticizing China

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The Olympic Games Rings | Image by thedcms on Flickr

Human rights activists are advising athletes to avoid criticizing China at next month’s Winter Olympics in Beijing for fears that they could face prosecution.

Activists with the Global Athlete Group spoke at a conference hosted by Human Rights Watch on Tuesday. They pointed out that although the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said that athletes will have freedom of speech at the Winter Olympics slated to begin on February 4, the Olympic Charter rule states that “applicable public law” must be followed.


The IOC has yet to clarify how Chinese authorities plan to apply their laws to Olympic athletes.

“Chinese laws are very vague on the crimes they can use to prosecute people’s free speech,” Human Rights Watch researcher Yaqiu Wang said, citing laws in China against provoking trouble or inciting subversion.

The IOC has also not provided any guidance on what protections they would give an athlete who speaks out.

“Silence is complicity, and that’s why we have concerns,” said Rob Koehler, the director-general of the Global Athlete group. “We know the human rights record and the allowance of freedom of expression in China, so there’s really not much protection.”

“With no guaranteed protection by the IOC or the Chinese authorities, we strongly advise athletes not to speak up about human rights issues while in China.” the Global Athlete Group said in a January 12 press release.

The press release cites the example of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai. Last November, Peng revealed that she was sexually abused by a former senior member of the ruling Communist Party in a social media post.

The post was soon deleted from China’s internet, and Peng disappeared from public view for two weeks before showing up in a potentially staged appearance on state media. In December, Peng was interviewed by a Chinese Newspaper and denied having accused anyone of sexual abuse. Peng has not made any public statements since then. The incident has sparked international concerns for her safety, whereabouts, and freedom of expression.

China’s treatment of its majority-Muslim Uyghur community and its policies toward Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have also received heavy criticism ahead of the Olympics. Because of China’s poor track record on human rights, several countries, including the U.S., have announced that they will stage a “diplomatic boycott” of the games, meaning that no government officials will be in attendance, but athletes will still compete.

Some called for a total boycott of the games, but two-time U.S. Olympic cross-country skier Noah Hoffman, who was also at the conference, said that would be unfair to the athletes while acknowledging safety concerns.

“That makes me upset, and I am scared for their safety when they go to China,” Hoffman said, [but] “they can speak out when they get back.”

“It’s a false choice to say athletes could choose not to attend our careers depend on this; the two Olympics I attended define my career,” the American skier continued.

“You can’t have an international-level cross-country skiing career without attending the Olympics. You cannot choose not to attend and continue your career,” Hoffman added, “your sponsorship, your world ranking, your ability to be supported by the national team depends on it.”

Concerns have also arisen about data privacy and spying in China. Some European countries have cautioned their athletes against bringing personal phones or computers to Beijing.

“Any person with a sane mind who hears all these things,” Koehler said, “must have concerns.”

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