Beijing 2022: Athletes warned about speaking out on human rights

Behaviour by athletes that violates the “Olympic spirit” or Chinese rules could be subject to punishment, a Beijing 2022 official said, after rights groups voiced concern about the safety of competitors if they protest at next month’s Winter Olympics.

Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites”, although it was relaxed last year to allow for gestures on the field if they are made without disruption and with respect for competitors.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has made it clear that athletes are free to express their opinions on any matter in news conferences and interviews within the Olympic bubble, as long as it is not during competition or medal ceremonies.

Yang Shu, deputy director general of Beijing 2022’s International Relations Department, was asked during a virtual briefing on Wednesday about concerns for athletes if they speak out about rights issues during the Winter Games, which begin on February 4.

“Any expression that is in line with the Olympic spirit I’m sure will be protected and anything and any behaviour or speeches that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment,” Yang said.

Activists rally in front of the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles, California on November 3, 2021, calling for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics due to concerns about China’s human rights record [Frederic J Brown/AFP]

Yang’s comments came after athletes travelling to the Beijing Olympics were warned on Tuesday by speakers at a seminar hosted by Human Rights Watch about speaking up about human rights issues while in China, for their own safety.

“There’s really not much protection that we believe is going to be afforded to athletes,” Rob Koehler, the director general of the Global Athlete group, said in the seminar. “Silence is complicity and that’s why we have concerns.

“So we’re advising athletes not to speak up. We want them to compete and use their voice when they get home.”

Rights groups have long criticised the IOC for awarding the Games to China, citing its treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim minority groups. China denies allegations of human rights abuses.

On Tuesday, the IOC said in an emailed response to a request for comment from the Reuters news agency that it “recognises and upholds human rights as enshrined in both the Fundamental Principles of the Olympic Charter and in its Code of Ethics” at all times.


Meanwhile on Wednesday, human rights group Amnesty International warned that the international community must not allow China to use the Winter Olympics in Beijing as a “sportswashing opportunity” and must avoid being “complicit in a propaganda exercise”.

The organisation fears China will use the Games to distract from alleged human rights violations against Uighur Muslims and in Hong Kong, arguing that the situation in the country is worse now than when it hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008.

“The world must heed the lessons of Beijing 2008 Games, when Chinese government promises of human rights improvements never materialised,” Alkan Akad, Amnesty’s China researcher, said.

“The Beijing Winter Olympics must not be allowed to pass as a mere sportswashing opportunity for the Chinese authorities and the international community must not become complicit in a propaganda exercise.

The Beijing Olympic Games should not be used as a distraction from China’s appalling human rights record, instead, the Games should be an opportunity to press China to address its human rights abuses. — Amnesty International (@amnesty) January 18, 2022

Moreover, Akad said the IOC must insist Beijing “keeps its promise to guarantee media freedom, including unrestricted internet access for Chinese and international journalists, and ensure that people who want to peacefully protest during the Games are able to do so”.

The United States, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom have announced they will not send diplomatic representation to the Olympics, with the US citing “the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights violations”.

Nevertheless, athletes from those countries will still participate in the event, which starts on February 4.