By Patrick Goodenough
February 11 - Britain's sports authorities have backed away from a plan to prohibit athletes representing the United Kingdom in the Beijing Olympic Games from making any comments critical of China's human rights record.
Reports on the plan, published in a London tabloid Sunday, caused an uproar, and the British Olympic Association (BOA) agreed to revisit language in the official contract athletes must sign ahead of competing this summer.
The Mail on Sunday reported that the contract included a new clause saying that athletes "are not to comment on politically sensitive issues."
The clause cited a section of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Charter, which states that "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."
The section also bars the appearance on athletes' person or apparel of any "publicity or propaganda," with clearly-specified exceptions for the names of clothing or equipment manufacturers.
The newspaper said the BOA had told it that any athlete who refused to sign the agreement would not be allowed to travel to Beijing, while anyone who signed but violated it would be sent home.
When Beijing in 2001 bid to host the 2008 Games, officials made commitments in a number of areas, including the protection of minority national rights and "complete media freedom" in the run-up to, and during, the event. The IOC awarded the hosting rights to Beijing over four other candidate cities.
Human rights groups were divided over the decision, with some calling for a boycott and others arguing, with varying degrees of optimism, that the event would prod the regime towards greater openness.
News of the attempt to gag British participants came shortly after rights organizations repeated the now-familiar concerns that -- with just six months to go until the Aug. 8 opening ceremony -- repression in China has worsened rather than improved.
Rights advocates are, moreover, increasingly urging athletes to speak out about violations, along with national Olympic bodies and the IOC itself.
"The world sports movement must now speak out and call for the Chinese people to be allowed to enjoy the freedoms it has been demanding for years," the press freedom watchdog Reporters without Borders said late last week.
"This is not about spoiling the party or taking the Olympic Games hostage. And anyway, it is China that has taken the games and the Olympic spirit hostage, with the IOC's complicity."
Human Rights Watch cited a crackdown which it said was clearly aimed at stamping out dissent ahead of the event, and said it was imperative foreign governments and Olympic bodies make it clear that the abuses are a threat to the success of the Games.
"International silence in the face of these Olympics-related human rights violations is tantamount to giving the Chinese government a green light to intensify its pre-Olympic crackdown," said Sophie Richardson, the organization's Asia advocacy director.
"The silence of the IOC is striking," said Jan Ruml, former Czech dissident and senator and chairman of the Prague-based Olympic Watch. "Human rights abuses are clearly continuing if not worsening in China, even directly related to the Games. The international Olympic movement must act now."
For its part, the Chinese government has stepped up its reaction to the criticism.
"We oppose politicizing the Olympic Games because that runs counter to the principles and spirit of the Games," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jian Yu told a press briefing in late January, adding that it was clear to all that "China has made remarkable progress in human rights protection and press freedom."
Beijing is especially unhappy about attempts to link the Olympics with China's support for the government in Sudan, implicated in the violence in Darfur.
The People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the communist party, recently published an opinion piece saying that while China was open to constructive advice, it "will not tolerate baseless accusations and firmly opposes the practice of using the Olympic Games to hype up political issues such as Darfur."
Those who cherish the "Olympic spirit" should condemn those who preach human rights "heresies" and violate the principles of sport, it said, adding that any attempt to link the Olympics with Taiwanese independence would also backfire.
Against that background, the BOA's move drew strong criticism Sunday, with some recalling the propaganda value derived by the Nazis by hosting the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Newspaper commentator David Mellor, a former Conservative government minister, said the BOA should "consider what effect kow-towing to totalitarian governments had in the run-up to the Second World War: none on the dictators, lasting shame on the appeasers."
"People in China can't speak out about human rights without fear of reprisals," said Tim Hancock, campaigns director of Amnesty International. "people in Britain can. It's up to each individual to decide what they think and what they say about China's human rights record and that goes for athletes too."
Later Sunday, the BOA distanced itself from the earlier decision.
"I accept that the interpretation of one part of the draft BOA's Team Members Agreement appears to have gone beyond the provision of the Olympic Charter," said chief executive Simon Clegg in a statement.
"This is not our intention nor is it our desire to restrict athletes' freedom of speech and the final agreement will reflect this."
National Olympic bodies in a couple of smaller countries, including Belgium and New Zealand, have placed restrictions on their athletes giving political opinions in Beijing.
But Australia, which will have one of the largest teams at the Games, will not stop its athletes from commenting on sensitive issues like rights abuses and the occupation of Tibet. Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates has said the country's participants are "entitled to have opinions and express them."