By Ben Leapman
British athletes will be banned from competing in this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing if they criticise China's totalitarian regime.
The gagging order has been imposed by the British Olympic Association. Competitors who break the rule will not travel to the games or, if they are already in China, will be put on the next plane home.
It means sportsmen and women will be unable to raise concerns about China's human rights record or its occupation of Tibet.
Critics accused the BOA of bowing to political pressure and said that the move raised the spectre of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which passed off without protest and were hailed as a propaganda coup for the Nazi regime.
The reaction is in contrast to other countries, including the United States and Australia, where athletes will be free to speak out about China should they wish to do so. The Prince of Wales will not attend the Beijing games because of concerns over human rights.
Since the 1988 Olympics in Soeul, British competitors have been asked to sign contracts that include a pledge "not to comment on any politically sensitive issues".
However, this year's contracts will, for the first time, explicitly refer competitors to Section 51 of the International Olympic Committee charter, which "provides for no kind of demonstration, or political, religious or racial propaganda in the Olympic sites, venues or other areas".
Simon Clegg, the BOA chief executive, said: "There are all sorts of organisations who would like athletes to use the Olympic Games as a vehicle to publicise their causes. I don't believe that is in the interest of the team performance. We are ambassadors of the country and we have to conform to an appropriate code of conduct.
"There is a requirement on team members to sign the agreement. If athletes step out of line, action will be taken."
Graham Newsom, the BOA spokesman, said: "We're not trying to gag athletes. If an athlete gets asked a direct question they will be allowed to answer that question, but there is a difference between giving an honest answer to actually going out to make a specific political point."