Athletes should not fear punishment from the Chinese government over the expression of political views at the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach has said.
An official from the local organising committee, Yang Shu, said last month that behaviour and speech “against Chinese laws and regulations” would be “subjected to certain punishment”, raising concerns for the safety of any athlete who chooses to take a stand.
Bach was asked about IOC Rule 50, which governs political expression by athletes, and in particular the section which talks about athletes respecting ‘the applicable laws’.
He insisted political expression at the Games would be governed by IOC rules, that Beijing had agreed to this in its host city contract and that the IOC had no reason to believe this would not be respected.
He said on 3rd February, on the eve of the opening ceremony, that any reported breaches of IOC Rule 50 would be investigated by its disciplinary commission.
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Rule 50.2 forbids political expression in the Olympic Village, during competition on the field of play, at the opening and closing ceremonies and during medal ceremonies.
“In case of any infringements then the IOC disciplinary commission will take care of this, and this is the same situation as we had in Tokyo [for the Summer Games in 2021],” he said.
“There is no difference – the rule has not changed and the attitude of the IOC has not changed.
“I would suggest to every athlete, wherever the Games are taking place or whenever an athlete is making a statement, that he does not insult other people, that he is not violating the rights of other people, but then expressing freely their opinion.”
Bach was at pains to point out that the IOC’s rules barring political expression in specified settings were not unique, adding: “These kind of rules exist in many, if not all, walks of life.
“If an actor is engaging in a theatre, playing Hamlet, nobody ever asked the question whether when playing Hamlet, he must or should or can express his political opinion during the play, and the same is true for the athletes.
“When the curtain falls, the actor can go back to his locker room and take his mobile device and send a message to social media, or when he’s leaving the theatre and the press is awaiting him.
“But nobody would ever think of saying that this is an unjustified restriction of the freedom of speech. The theatre can only work if they play the plays, and the Games can only work if it’s about sport and the rules of the Games are respected.”
Bach was asked if he had a message for the Uyghur population in China, who human rights groups say have been subjected to persecution in the Xinjiang province.
He declined to comment and said it would be “the end” of the Olympics if the IOC dropped its stance of political neutrality.
“If we are taking a political standpoint, and we are getting in the middle of tensions and disputes and confrontations of political powers, then we are putting the Games at risk,” he said.
“You would have Olympic Games only between the national Olympic committees (NOCs) whose governments agree on every political situation [and] the Games would lose that universality and their mission and that would lead to the end of the Olympic Games.”