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Freedom of expression sure to be difficult topic at Beijing Olympics

April 11, 2008

The Canadian Press
April 10, 2008


BEIJING — Imagine the scene: A winning athlete takes a victory lap at
the Beijing Olympics and proudly unfurls his national flag. Seconds
later, he

grabs a Tibetan flag and waves it with his other hand.

The International Olympic Committee is formulating guidelines about what
athletes can and can't do while they are at Olympic venues, but even

president Jacques Rogge acknowledged some situations will be open to
interpretation.

"Everything will be studied on its merit," Rogge said Thursday during
the first of two days of IOC executive board meetings. "Freedom of
expression is

something that is absolute. It's a human right. Athletes have it."

Rogge called aggressive protests against the torch relay in London,
Paris and San Francisco a "crisis" for the Olympic movement. The
situation would

be worse if pro-Tibet and human-rights protests are repeated in Beijing
where the Games open in four months.

Through their local Olympic officials, athletes have asked Rogge for
unambiguous guidance. He tried to give it Thursday, but some issues may
need

more clarification.

Rogge repeatedly cited paragraph 51.3 of the Olympic Charter, which
spells out guidelines for "advertising, demonstrations and propaganda."

"No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda
is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas," the charter says.

The problem is likely to be how the word "propaganda" is defined. It is
certain to mean that making political gestures or statements at Olympic

venues will be banned, a sensitive issue in Beijing where China's
communist government hopes to use the Games to gain goodwill.

So far the politically charged torch relay has been a public relations
disaster for China.

Rogge said common sense will be called into play to determine if
athletes are making a political statement, or just being exuberant in
celebrating a

victory.

"It is clear that it is perfectly legitimate for a Spanish athlete to
carry the flag of his own province ... and of course the national flag,"
Rogge said,

citing an example. "If you have the combination of a foreign flag with a
national flag, then we will have to make an interpretation if this is

propaganda and or a demonstration."

Rogge said athletes would only be constrained when they were at Olympic
venues, or the athletes village. Anywhere else in Beijing, they will be
free

to speak about any topic. This could also mean wearing pins, T-shirts or
other garments to express an opinion.

It's not clear how this will be greeted by Chinese who are growing
increasingly sensitive at what they see as unwarranted criticism of the
Games.

Rogge also said athletes would be free to talk with reporters about any
subject when they are speaking in the main media area, or the "mixed zone"

where athletes and reporters can talk immediately after performances on
the field.

"You're asking us to define something which ultimately will come down to
common sense and be dealt with if and when it happens," IOC

spokeswoman Giselle Davies said. "You have to trust that the IOC, which
has been the franchise of the Games for decades, will work with the

problem and manage the situation."

Asked what penalties would be applied, Rogge hedged.

"I'm not in a sanction mode, definitely not."

Rogge also said athletes were free to remain silent.

"If athletes genuinely want to express their opinion, that's fine,"
Rogge said. "But let's not forget there is also the right not to express
an opinion."
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