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Olympic athletes warned not to criticize China during Beijing Games

A photographer takes pictures of the illuminated Olympic rings in front of the Rainbow Bridge on Jan. 24, 2020, in the Odaiba district of Tokyo. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press/TNS)
January 18, 2022

Participants in the Beijing Olympics were warned this week not to criticize China during the upcoming games because they could face criminal prosecution, human rights activists said.

While the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has assured athletes that they will have freedom of speech while competing in the communist nation, the official Olympic Charter prohibits political protests during medal ceremonies and requires participants to follow “applicable public law.”

During a briefing hosted by Human Rights Watch this week, activists noted that the IOC has not stated publicly how participants will be protected should they choose to speak out, The Associated Press reported.

“Silence is complicity and that’s why we have concerns,” said Rob Koehler, the director general of Global Athlete, an international athlete-led movement which seeks to inspire positive change in world sport, according to the group’s website. “We know the human rights record and the allowance of freedom of expression in China, so there’s really not much protection.”

The IOC has also not responded to requests to clarify how Chinese Communist Party laws will apply to athletes at the Olympic Games in Beijing, the AP reported.

“Chinese laws are very vague on the crimes they can use to prosecute people’s free speech,” said Yaqiu Wang, a Human Rights Watch researcher.

Noah Hoffman, a two-time Olympic cross-country skier, said he is “upset” and “scared” for Team USA athletes as they head to China, adding that team officials are already guarding athletes from taking questions.

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

Several Olympic teams in Europe, as well as the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, have been advising athletes to leave their personal phones behind and instead use temporary “burner” phones to avoid being spied on when they go to Beijing.

The U.S. committee’s advice to athletes was reportedly shared in an advisory document in September and then a bulletin in December. The bulletin reportedly advised athletes that their “every device, communication, transaction and online activity may be monitored.”

“Your device(s) may also be compromised with malicious software, which could negatively impact future use,” the bulletin added.

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

China announced on Monday that tickets for the Games will not be sold to the general public due to COVID-19. Tickets will, however, be distributed by authorities to individuals in China. There will be no spectators from outside China’s mainland.