Respect Equality

Activists warn Olympians against criticizing China

Story at a glance

  • Human Rights Watch is warning Olympic athletes not to speak out against China, the host of next month’s winter Olympics.
  • International Olympic Committee rules state that athletes are allowed to express their views publicly, but only if the expression is not targeted, directly or indirectly, against people, countries and/or their dignity.
  • Activists cited the case of tennis player Peng Shuai, who accused a top China Communist Party official of sexual assault and then was not seen publicly for weeks.

Athletes competing in the winter Olympics next month are being warned not to speak out against China because they could be prosecuted. 

Activists warned in a briefing held by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has not yet publicly committed to how athletes who speak out against China would be protected, according to ABC News. 

“Chinese laws are very vague on the crimes they can use to prosecute people’s free speech,” said Yaqiu Wang, a HRW researcher, according to ABC. 

The winter Olympics will kick off on Feb. 4 in Beijing, and so far the IOC has not responded to requests to clarify how Chinese law could apply to athletes at the Olympic games. 


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Global Athlete, an advocacy group for athletes, said in a statement this week that China has a proven track record of silencing those who speak out against it. According to the group, the IOC rule 50.2 continues to punish athletes who use the podium or the playing field to peacefully protest.  

“This IOC rule combined with the opaque Chinese system places every athlete at risk,” Global Athlete said. 

According to the IOC, under rule 50.2 athletes are allowed to express their views, including when speaking to the media, during team meetings, through social media channels and on the playing field, but only if the expression is not targeted, directly or indirectly, against people, countries, organizations and/or their dignity, among other exceptions.  

“When expressing their views, athletes are expected to respect the applicable laws, the Olympic values and their fellow athletes,” the IOC rule states. 

Activists have additionally cited the case of tennis player Peng Shuai, who accused a top China Communist Party official of sexual assault and then was not seen publicly for weeks, according to ABC. She later denied she ever made any accusations about the alleged sexual assault.  

The IOC said in December they held multiple video calls with Peng to ensure her well-being and safety.  

“The disappearance of Peng Shuai is a glaring example of the type of the risk athletes face when they speak up,” Global Athlete added.  

Human Rights Watch has also criticized the IOC for failing to punish Chinese leaders for their alleged crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, where there have been documented cases of mass detentions, torture, sexual abuse and cultural persecution of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims,  

Some Olympic teams in Europe have advised athletes not to bring personal telephones or laptops to Beijing over data privacy and spying concerns in China, ABC reported.  


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