Is Free Speech at Risk for Olympians?

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The Beijing Olympics is still four months away but it's already considered one of the most politicized games in Olympic history.

Still, American Olympians gathered at the U.S. Olympic Committee's pre-Olympic Media Summit in Chicago seem determined to keep sports and politics separate.

Heather O'Reilly of the U.S. women's soccer team, is aware of China's record on human rights, but is also firm about her role at the Olympics.

"We are socially aware individuals and we understand why people are using (the Beijing Olympics) as a platform for change in the world," O'Reilly told a hotel ballroom filled with reporters. "But we're athletes. We're focusing on winning back that gold medal."

Teammate Abby Wambach told the group that adding political expectations to the competitive pressures athletes already face is a bit much.

"That's a lot of responsibility," Wambach said, especially on top of the duty "... to represent your country and to perform and to try to win a gold medal ... it's a lot for one person to take on."

Speaking out at the Olympics has its price. The International Olympic Committee has warned athletes about "Rule 51" in the Olympic Charter, which all Olympic athletes agree to honor when they compete in the games. The rule says that "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

The rule also prohibits armbands, ribbons, buttons or other signs of "publicity or propaganda" on the equipment or clothing of Olympic athletes and officials.

American athletes accused of violating Rule 51 would be investigated by the U.S. Olympic Committee's Games Administration Board, which would recommend a response. But the Olympic Charter reserves a final decision for the International Olympic Committee's Executive Board, and it could send violators home.

"The two areas that are addressed most directly by Rule 51 are competition venues and the athlete's village," notes Darryl Seibel, spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee. "Beyond that, athletes are free to express themselves anywhere and in any way they feel appropriate. Of course, you have to respect the laws of the country you're in."

That means athletes have nothing to fear from Olympic officials if they protest in some way outside the Olympic venues. But, it's not clear how Chinese authorities would react. They're so authoritarian, and fearful of dissent, they're expected to snoop on American visitors to the Olympics, according to the State Department. A State Department advisory warns that Americans can expect surreptitious surveillance, wire-tapping and undisclosed searches of hotel rooms during the Olympics.

But, this week's Olympic media event in Chicago closed its first day without any of the American athletes in attendance calling for or promising political acts. Even the politically minded see a clear line between competition and protest.

American softball pitcher Jennie Finch is one of hundreds of Olympic athletes who have joined Team Darfur, an effort to raise money for and awareness about the human rights and relief crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan. China supports the government of Sudan, which is blamed for the crisis.

"Of course (Darfur) concerns me. It should concern everybody," Finch asserts. "But at the same time, it's separated from what I'm doing as an Olympian and what I'm competing for."

Gymnast Shawn Johnson says she and her teammates are focused on their Olympic dreams and goals. "In the end we are athletes ... I don't think there's going to be anything that's going to change the way we feel about the Olympics."



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