Athletes should not be muzzled while in Beijing.
Run, high-jump, hurdle or kayak — but whatever you do, don’t speak. That’s the message some countries are sending to their athletes ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
Last month, the Belgian Olympic Committee announced that it will not permit its athletes to make political statements, verbally or sartorially, in Olympic venues. The British Olympic Association similarly muzzled its athletes, who will be expelled from the team if they talk about political issues anywhere at all. The New Zealand Olympic Committee has also waffled about exactly how much freedom of expression its athletes will enjoy.
The decisions must please China, which has been condemning human rights groups for “politicizing” the Games. The Belgian, British and New Zealand committees argue that the gag orders are just meant to uphold the Olympic charter, which declares that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted” at the Games.
It would be nice if the Olympics could transcend politics, but that has never happened and never will. The Olympic charter is chock-full of political goals and principles, including feminism, environmentalism and world peace. And from the 1936 Nazi-hosted Games to the 1964 exclusion of apartheid South Africa to the 1968 black-power salute to the 1980 U.S.-led and 1984 Soviet-led boycotts, the Olympics have always been infused with politics and human rights concerns.
In making its Olympic bid, China repeatedly argued that placing the Games in Beijing would “help the development of human rights.” Yet China’s human rights record has in many ways worsened (as in the appalling arrest of dissident Hu Jia recently), and China has continued to abet repression in Burma and Sudan. Belgium’s and Britain’s orders to athletes not to comment on China’s poor behavior may actually embolden Beijing. They also set a bad precedent for authoritarian regimes that may host the Games in the coming years — including Russia, which is hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The worst example of all is set for Western democracies. These gag orders call into question the West’s belief in freedom of speech, a value that democracies should be promoting, not discounting, in China. So far, Olympic committees in Australia, Canada and the United States have said they’ll allow their athletes to speak freely. We hope other democracies will follow suit and allow their athletes to express themselves — about China or anything else.