Athletes traveling to the Beijing Winter Olympics were on Tuesday warned about speaking up on human rights issues while in China for their own safety by speakers at a seminar hosted by Human Rights Watch.
Rights groups have long criticized the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for awarding the Games to China, citing the treatment by the Chinese government of Uighurs and other Muslim minority groups, which the US has deemed “genocide.”
China denies the allegations of human rights abuses.
“There’s really not much protection that we believe is going to be afforded to athletes,” Global Athlete director-general Rob Koehler told 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.”
Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter stipulates: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic site, venue or other area.”
“Chinese laws are very vague on the crimes that can be used to prosecute people’s free speech,” Human Rights Watch researcher Yaqiu Wang said. “People can be charged with picking quarrels or provoking trouble. There are all kinds of crimes that can be leveled at peaceful, critical comments.”
The US team is being shielded from questions about human rights, said Noah Hoffman, a cross-country skier who represented the US at the 2014 Sochi and 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games.
“I feel fear for my teammates going to China,” Hoffman said. “I know my teammates are being shielded about questions on these issues for their own safety. We should never have to protect athletes from speaking out about issues that they think are really important.”
“My hope for athletes there is that they stay silent because they are not only going to be prosecuted by the Chinese authorities, but they could also be punished by the IOC,” Hoffman added.
Concerns about data privacy and spying at the Games were raised on Tuesday when a smartphone app built by China to monitor the health of attendees was reported to contain security flaws.
“When it comes to surveillance, we know it’s there,” Koehler said. “There are reasons that several countries have come out and asked athletes not to bring their own mobile devices. Any person of a sane mind who hears these things must have concerns.”
The IOC said in an e-mailed response to a request for comment that the Olympic body at all times “recognizes and upholds human rights as enshrined in both the fundamental principles of the Olympic Charter and in its code of ethics.”
The Winter Olympics begin on Feb. 4. Several countries, including the US, Britain, Japan and Australia, have announced diplomatic boycotts of the Games over concerns about human rights in China.
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