BEIJING — On the eve of the opening of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a direct warning to American athletes: do not use these Games as a venue for protest.
“I would say to our athletes, ‘You’re there to compete. Do not risk incurring the anger of the Chinese government, because they are ruthless,’” Pelosi said Thursday to a Congressional-Executive Commission on China. “I know there is the temptation on the part of some to speak out while they are there. I respect that. But I also worry about what the Chinese government might do to their reputations, to their families.”
The United States, among several other nations, has enacted a diplomatic boycott of these Games, meaning no American government officials will attend.
Pelosi’s warning is part of a larger series of China-related advisories from the federal government. The U.S. Department of State noted in December that American citizens visiting China can be detained or deported “for sending private electronic messages critical of the [Chinese] government,” and “may be detained without access to U.S. consular services or information about their alleged crime.” The State Department recommended visitors avoid demonstrations and “keep a low profile.”
There’s no higher profile in sports than an Olympic podium, though, and the temptation to use that platform to speak out on a cause — personal or political — is strong, particularly on topics as far-reaching as China’s record on human rights. The International Olympic Committee has long sought to keep the Olympics apolitical — or, more directly, to keep athletes from openly espousing political causes that might run counter to the IOC’s own mission or the prevailing desires of host nations.
In response to public pressure in advance of the Beijing Games, the IOC updated its Rule 50 guidelines to allow for activism in interviews, on social media, or at Olympic venues prior to the start of competition. (Demonstrations during competitions and medal ceremonies remain forbidden.) The IOC notes, however, that any form of activism or protest must comply with “applicable laws” — i.e. those of the host nation.
China’s applicable laws against speech deemed critical of the nation are vast and vague. Yang Shu, deputy director of international relations for the Beijing organizing committee, said prior to the Games: “Any expression that is in line with the Olympic spirit I’m sure will be protected. Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.”
That did little to alleviate concern.
What that “certain punishment” might be — questioning, detention, worse — has concerned U.S. Olympic officials enough that they, like Pelosi, have actively warned athletes not to speak up during these games.
“Because at this point,” said one source present at pre-Olympic USOPC athlete briefings, “no one’s been able to say, with any sort of authority, that you won’t be questioned [if you criticize the Chinese government].”
The IOC has offered little in the way of clarity on whether it will support the rights of athletes who speak up against the Chinese government. IOC president Thomas Bach did not directly answer the question at a news conference. In response to follow-up email inquiries — “if that athlete faced consequences from Chinese authorities, would the IOC protect the athlete?” — IOC officials declined to offer a direct answer, and did not respond to an inquiry earlier this week.
The potential for government reprisal has led Global Athlete, an athlete advocacy group, to recommend athletes keep their silence while in-country. “With no guaranteed protection by the IOC or the Chinese authorities,” Global Athlete said in a recent statement, “we strongly advise athletes not to speak up about human rights issues while in China. The disappearance of (Chinese tennis star) Peng Shuai is a glaring example of the type of the risk athletes face when they speak up.”
“Athletes have a responsibility to keep themselves safe,” said Noah Hoffman, a 2014 and 2018 Olympic cross-country skier for Team USA. “And that is their only responsibility. They can speak out when they get back. But they do not have a responsibility to deal with this issue that the IOC has put them in. Because it would threaten their own safety. And that’s not a reasonable ask of athletes, to put their safety at risk.”
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