Olympic athletes warned not to criticize China over lawsuit issues


GENEVA — Athletes at the Beijing Olympics were urged by human rights campaigners on Tuesday to avoid criticizing China because they could be prosecuted.

The International Olympic Committee has said athletes will have freedom of expression at next month’s Winter Games when talking to reporters or posting on social media. However, the Olympic Charter rule that prohibits political protest at medal ceremonies also requires that “applicable public law” be observed.

The IOC has yet to publicly commit to how athletes who speak out would be protected, activists said at a briefing hosted by Human Rights Watch.

“Silence is complicity, and that’s why we have concerns,” said Rob Koehler, chief executive of Global Athlete Group. “We know the human rights record and the freedom of speech allowed in China, so there really isn’t a lot of protection.”

The IOC has not responded to requests in recent days to clarify how Chinese law might apply to the Beijing Games, which open on February 4.

“Chinese laws are very vague about the crimes they can use to pursue people’s freedom of expression,” said Yaqiu Wang, researcher at Human Rights Watch, citing potential offenses of causing trouble or inciting subversion.

China’s treatment of its predominantly Muslim Uyghur people and its policies toward Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan have come under scrutiny ahead of the Olympics. China has also drawn criticism following tennis player Peng Shuai’s near-total disappearance from public view. She wrote in a social media post that she had been sexually assaulted by a former prominent member of the ruling Communist Party.

Two-time Olympic cross-country skier Noah Hoffman said he knows Team USA is now protecting its athletes from questioning.

“It upsets me and I fear for their safety when they go to China,” Hoffman said. “They will be able to express themselves when they return.”

Activists cited the cases of Peng, wrestler Navid Afkari, who was executed in Iran in 2020, and the authoritarian regime’s treatment of athletes in Belarus as examples where the IOC could have done more to protect athletes.

Amid concerns over data privacy and espionage in China, some Olympic teams in Europe have also advised athletes not to bring personal phones and laptops to Beijing.

“Any sane person who hears all these things,” Koehler said, “should be worried.”

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