By Andrew Cawthorne
BEIJING - A senior Cuban athletics coach denied on Monday that his team's best hope for a track gold at the Beijing Olympics had signed a controversial petition pressing China over Tibet and human rights.
Last week, rights groups published a petition they said was signed by 40 athletes, including Cuba's 110 meter world record holder Dayron Robles, urging Chinese President Hu Jintao to find peace in Tibet and protect freedom of religion and opinion.
The appearance of Robles's name was a surprise given close ties between Cuba and China, which are both Communist-run.
Cuban athletes generally avoid touchy politics, with the exception of defectors from the state-run sports system.
"We saw this when we arrived, but at no time did anyone approach us, nor did we sign anything like this. We don't even know who that group is," Robles's coach Santiago Antunez said of German-based Sports for Peace that put the petition online.
"It's wrong. We're just here to compete," Antunez added as his 21-year-old protege limbered up behind him on a training track where he was not available for interviews.
Antunez, whose own country is a frequent target of rights criticism over freedom of expression and movement, said nations should respect each other's politics.
"It's not up to us (sportsmen) to talk," he said.
The Cuban coach said he was not worried by the inclusion of Robles's name in the petition as the hurdler had nothing to do with it. "They've probably done it with him and other athletes ... It's not surprising they put the names of famous athletes."
An updated version of the petition at www.sportsforpeace.de showed Robles among a longer list of 100 athletes on Monday.
Pia Ehlers, of Sports for Peace, told Reuters by telephone that Robles had apparently signed during a sports meeting in Germany. "As far as I know, we do have his signature and he did express interest and his support of the campaign.
"However, if he wishes to withdraw he can obviously do so."
Amnesty International, whose German branch was also behind the petition, said various athletes had withdrawn signatures made in Berlin in June due to pressure from China.
"Such retractions take place against a general backdrop of fear in terms of freedom of expression and censorship surrounding the Beijing Olympic Games," it said in a statement.