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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Athletes who take Tibet stand 'face Olympic cut'

April 12, 2008

Ashling O’Connor in Beijing
The Times
April 11, 2008

Athletes who display Tibetan flags at Olympic venues ­ including in
their own rooms ­ could be expelled from this summer’s Games in Beijing
under anti-propaganda rules.

Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee
(IOC), said that competitors were free to express their political views
but faced sanctions if they indulged in propaganda.

He accompanied those comments with an admission that the Games were in
“crisis” after pro-Tibet protests engulfed the Olympic torch relay.

Mr Rogge’s call for Beijing to abide by its promise to address human
rights was given short shrift by Beijing, which bluntly told him to keep
politics out of the Games.

The question of what will constitute propaganda when the Games are on in
August and what will be considered opinion under IOC rules is one vexing
many in the Olympic movement. The Olympic Charter bans any kind of
“demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” in any
Olympic venue or area.

This includes the opening and closing ceremonies, the medal podiums and
the Athletes’ Village.

Addressing concerns about free speech, Mr Rogge described the scenario
of a Spanish athlete doing a lap of honour in the Olympic stadium with
Spain’s national flag and his provincial flag as “perfectly legitimate”.

He said: “We have had many examples of mixed flags where the athlete is
proud of that. Is there a will to demonstrate propaganda or is it a
desire to demonstrate joy in his victory?”

The IOC did not specify whether a Chinese athlete or a foreign
competitor of Tibetan origin flying the Tibetan flag would be regarded
as patriotic or propagandist. A spokeswoman said that there had been no
discussion internally or with the Chinese authorities about use of the
Tibetan national flag. Asked whether athletes would be allowed to hang
the flag in their rooms, she said: “The village is an Olympic venue so
it falls under the same rules and regulations of any venue which would
mean that anything in there would be judged on whether it was a
provocative propaganda initiative.”

The fact that the IOC has still not qualified the exact interpretation
of “propaganda” means that some athletes remain confused about what they
can say during the 16-day event without being sent home or stripped of a
medal.

Unfurling Free Tibet banners or wearing Save Darfur T-shirts at Olympic
venues are acts likely to be regarded as a breach of the charter, which
was introduced after the American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos
gave the Black Power salute on the podium at the 1968 Games in Mexico
City. But there are still many grey areas and concerns among human
rights campaigners that athletes’ right to free speech will be curtailed
to avoid embarrassing their Chinese hosts.

At the Sydney Games in 2000 Olympic chiefs allowed Cathy Freeman to use
the Aboriginal flag to highlight the plight of the Stolen Generation
after she won a gold medal in the 400 metres.

British athletes ­ originally told that they could not comment on
“politically sensitive issues” before the edict was hastily retracted by
British Olympic chiefs accused of gagging free speech ­ have asked for
further clarification.

The British Athletes’ Commission (BAC) is seeking a tighter definition
of propaganda under the charter. They would also like more guidance on
the writing of personal blogs during the Games.

“There is a difference between propaganda and opinion and I would expect
most of our athletes to know it. Wearing a Free Tibet T-shirt is going
to be seen as propaganda. But if athletes are asked a direct question,
there should be no problem in them answering it,” said Pete Gardner, the
BAC’s chief executive. “We want the IOC to clarify that.”

Most athletes will have no interest in anything other than their
sporting performance but some want to be free to make political statements.

A group of French athletes, led by the pole-vaulter Romain Mesnil, has
asked the IOC to let them wear a badge calling “For a Better World”. He
said: “As athletes, we have to display Olympic values and human values.
We don’t want to be mere pawns.”

Mr Rogge will write to the 205 national Olympic committees with
guidelines to “prevent further politicisation” of the Games.

“Freedom of expression is absolutely a human right but there are small
limitations. We are a movement of 205 nations, many of whom are in
conflict, and the Games are not the place to take political or religious
stances,” he said.

“If athletes genuinely want to express their opinion, that’s fine. The
IOC will examine each case on its own merits and will do it with a lot
of common sense.” Claudia Bokel, a German former Olympic fencer, said:
“It is very important that athletes can prepare quietly and peacefully
for the Games. But they are also concerned about what is going on in
Tibet and they want to comply with the Olympic Charter.”

Pro-Tibet demonstrations have overshadowed the Olympic torch’s global
journey but the IOC said that the tour would continue as planned.

Mr Rogge said yesterday that the torch relay’s progress would continue
as planned. “There is no scenario of either interrupting or bringing
[it] back directly to Beijing,” he said. A review of future torch relays
will be made in September.

Mr Rogge defended the decision to award the Games to Beijing on a day of
testy exchanges with the Chinese over human rights that prompted Gerhard
Heiburg, Norway’s IOC member, to say that it was proving “more difficult
than we originally thought”.

Mr Rogge said: “It is very easy with hindsight to criticise the
decision. It’s easy to say now that this was not a wise and a sound
decision. “Without any doubt, the bid of Beijing was the best. It
offered something that no other country could: bringing sport and
Olympism to one fifth of mankind. That was the reasoning behind awarding
the Games to Beijing.”

But, in a nod to criticisms that China had failed to live up to promises
made at the time of the bid, Mr Rogge called for the country’s leaders
to respect their “moral engagement” to improve human rights. “A number
of important commitments have been made. Nothing is ever perfect and
there is definitely room for improvement,” he said.

In a terse response, China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman said that the
IOC’s own charter called for “irrelevant political factors” to be kept
separate from the Games.

Using the Games to make a point

­ Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists in the 200
metres, gave the Black Power salute during the American National Anthem
in Mexico, 1968, to demonstrate against racial discrimination in their
home country. They were expelled from the Games

­ The silver medallist in the 200 metres, Peter Norman of Australia, who
was white, wore an “Olympic Project for Human Rights” badge in support
of Smith and Carlos’s protest. When he died, in 2006, Smith and Carlos
were his lead pallbearers

­ Irish athletes boycotted the 1908 Olympic Games in London in protest
against Britain’s refusal to give Ireland its independence. The American
team also refused to dip its flag to Edward VII during the opening ceremony

­ In 1932 Italian gold medallist Luigi Beccali gave a fascist salute on
the podium at the Los Angeles Games

­ The Nazis’ appropriation of the 1936 Berlin Games for the purposes of
propaganda included the introduction of a grand torch relay to the Games
– the very same that is causing trouble today. Boycott efforts by
Britain and the US were short-lived, but many Jewish athletes refused to
participate

­ At the Munich Games of 1972, gunmen from the Palestinian Black
September group broke into the compound occupied by Israeli athletes and
killed 11 of them

­ In 1980 62 countries – the biggest number in history – boycotted the
Moscow Games in protest against the intervention of the Soviet Union in
Afghanistan

­ An Eastern bloc boycott was organised in retaliation at the next games
in Los Angeles

­ Two-time world judo champion Arash Miresmaeili was eliminated from the
2004 Olympics, officially after failing weight criteria. It seems more
likely his exit was because he was drawn against an Israeli. Iran’s
National Olympic Committee later said it was “general policy” for
Iranian athletes to avoid competing against Israelies
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