Chinese Olympic officials said yesterday they supported bans on athletes engaging in political protests. “I hope that the Olympic spirit will be followed and also the relevant IOC regulations will be followed in every regard,” said Sun Weide, spokesman of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games. Sun’s statement came in the midst of an uproar over the attempted gagging of British athletes.
On Saturday, the Mail, the London paper, reported that athletes qualifying for the British Olympic team would be required to sign a contract preventing them from speaking out on “any politically sensitive issues.” Athletes not agreeing to the ban of the British Olympic Association would not be allowed to travel to Beijing. Those who broke the ban while at the Olympics would be shipped home on the next available plane. On Sunday, British Olympic chief Simon Clegg said, in the face of widespread condemnation, that he would review the wording of the contract and agreed that the proposed language “appears to have gone beyond the provision of the Olympic Charter.”
The Olympic Charter forbids demonstrations or propaganda at Olympic sites, but the British ban would have gone further, especially if viewed in the context of China, where most topics are considered “political” and virtually everything is “sensitive.” A British competitor could have found himself on the first flight home for commenting on, for instance, polluted air or tainted food.
Up to now, only Belgium and New Zealand have prohibited political opinions from their Olympic athletes. Clegg’s hasty retreat means that, unlike in 1938 when the British soccer team was forced to give the stiff-armed Nazi salute in Berlin, the British will not, in the words of former sports minister David Mellor, be “sucking up to dictators.”
Chinese dictators, no matter how obsessive or efficient, will be unable to stage a politics-free Games on their own. They will need help in suppressing democracy advocates, Tibetan activists, and Falun Gong adherents, and so far some Western nations seem willing to lend a hand. Unfortunately, it does not appear that we can engage China’s rulers without being compromised by them. At least there is now one reason we can thank the craven and utterly reprehensible British Olympic Association. Simon Clegg and his colleagues show us that sometimes the price of good relations with bad leaders is much too high.