Balancing Politics and Medals at the Olympics Softball player Jessica Mendoza won a gold medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics. The Olympics in China this year provide a great platform to discuss Human Rights, she says. But could the simple word "Darfur" cause her to lose a medal?

Balancing Politics and Medals at the Olympics

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This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Madeleine Brand. A Tibetan woman carried the Olympic Torch to the peak of Everest today. Tibetan exiles said the move was in bad taste given China's human rights record. The Torch has been met by protestors at a number of stops, including London, Paris, and San Francisco.

COHEN: The Summer Games begin in exactly three months, and organizers are doing all they can to make sure the Games run smoothly and are free of politics. In just a few moments we will hear how the International Olympic Committee is cracking down on athletes who want to send a political message. But first we turn to one of those Olympic athletes. Jessica Mendoza plays on the U.S. Olympic softball team, and she is a member of Team Darfur. They are an international group of athletes trying to raise awareness about the crisis in Darfur, Sudan. Welcome to the program, Jessica.

Ms. JESSICA MENDOZA (Activist, Team Darfur): Thank you. Happy to be here.

COHEN: First of all, can you tell us how did Darfur become an issue that's important to you?

Ms. MENDOZA: Well, I actually read a book called "Not On Our Watch," by Don Cheadle and John Prendergast, last summer heading into the Pan American Games, and basically the whole entire book talks about the genocide and everything that's happening in Darfur right now. And after I read it I just - I wanted to get involved, and I was asking myself, you know, how can I help? What can I do? And ironically the next day we landed in D.C. before heading over to Rio for the Pan American Games, and Joey Cheek was there, who is one of the founders of Team Darfur. And he was there to actually talk with athletes who might be interested in helping, so it was really weird and funny how it all just came about. I was literally asking the questions that he was answering the next day.

COHEN: So, the Games are coming up. They're just a few months away. What are your plans for Team Darfur at the Games?

Ms. MENDOZA: You know, to be honest, I mean, we are trained, we've been on the road since January preparing for the Olympics, and my plans are really to compete in Beijing, and that in itself is enough to take up pretty much all of the time. So, I don't have a plan to do anything, or protest, or make a statement while in China pretty much out of respect for the host country, and also out of respect for the Olympic Games. I feel like one of the greatest parts of the Olympics is the fact that you're able to get along with so many other countries, and a big part of that is because politics tends to try to stay out of it, at least amongst the athletes. I mean, we can talk about it and discuss it, but as far as making protests or demonstrations, that's what tends to hinder that beautiful chemistry and friendship that happens at the Olympics.

COHEN: So, you say you don't plan on protesting, but you can talk or discuss it. What does that mean exactly? Are the words Darfur ever going to cross your lips the entire time you're in Beijing?

Ms. MENDOZA: Yeah, they totally could. I mean, one of my favorite memories from the last Olympic Games in Athens was the dining hall. I hardly ever sat with my team because I loved being able to go to other countries and talk to them, and just discuss, you know, the simplest things like their sport or some political issues.

COHEN: You have the opportunity to tell the whole world how you feel about this issue. The spotlight will be on you. Will you make any public statements when allowed about this issue?

Ms. MENDOZA: So far we've actually had some Olympic sponsored media events, and I've completely felt comfortable discussing it with the media if someone were to ask, OK, how did you get involved with Team Darfur? What was your role? What are your goals? You know, I have no problem answering those questions. But the thing with me is that I do play a team sport, and so I don't want to take attention away from hopefully the success that my team is able to accomplish by talking about what I personally feel strongly about.

COHEN: I understand that members of Team Darfur will be wearing wristbands to express their message at the Games. Will you be wearing one?

Ms. MENDOZA: You know, I've talked with our national governing body, and our whole team has them - the wristbands, and we've worn them before. And there are certain rules, I guess, with our sponsorships, and with being in uniform. So, our national governing body says they would make sure that legally we're allowed to do that, but I plan to wear it like walking around the village, or just hanging out, because no one can really tell me what to wear.

COHEN: Jessica Mendoza is a member of the U.S. Olympic softball team. Thank you, and best of luck at the Games.

Ms. MENDOZA: Thank you.

COHEN: So, what exactly would happen to Jessica Mendoza if she wore her Team Darfur wristband at the Games? The International Olympic Committee has rules governing what it calls demonstration and propaganda. They apply in the athlete's village, at competition venues, and during Olympic news conferences. But, those rules are a bit vague. This week the IOC tried to clarify them and set clearer limits. NPR's Howard Berkes covers the Olympics, and he joins us now. Hi, Howard.


COHEN: So, how clear are these new guidelines?

BERKES: Well, let's say they are slightly more clear, but they are still somewhat vague. The original language that applies is contained in what's known as Rule 51 in the Olympic charter, and it focuses mostly on advertising, but it also prohibits what is referred to as demonstration, or political, religious, or racial propaganda, as you mentioned, at Olympic venues. The clarification says athletes would be in violation of Rule 51 if they display signs, or banners, posters, equipment, clothing, anything that could be perceived as any kind of demonstration or propaganda.

COHEN: OK. So, physical objects with protesting messages are out. What about political speech? Is that permitted?

BERKES: The IOC likes to say that athletes are free to say anything they want. However, they also say that they can only do so in the context of Rule 51, which doesn't seem to permit political statements of any kind at the Olympics. The IOC also says, by the way, that the athletes are free to say whatever they want outside of the Olympic venues, out on the streets, but they note that they still must obey the laws of the host country. Well, China is extremely sensitive about dissent in general. It's especially sensitive about any political statements related to the Olympics. So, who knows how the Chinese are going to react if Olympic athletes are out on the streets waving Tibetan flags, or wearing that t-shirt that sports the five handcuffs instead of the five Olympic rings.

COHEN: What are the potential consequences if they break these rules?

BERKES: Rule 51 says violations may result in disqualification and ejection from the Games. The IOC says it will use common sense in applying these rules. We just don't really know what that means.

COHEN: Howard, what about the Internet? Are athletes allowed to blog with political messages?

BERKES: There are special rules that also apply to blogging. The rules that I've seen don't say anything particular about political messages, but it does restrict athletes in what they can say. They're only supposed to talk about their own personal experiences. They're not supposed to pretend to be reporting on events. I think though that the IOC rules under Rule 51 do suggest that the IOC is going to be very sensitive about any political speech associated with the Games, and if they want to interpret a blog as being something that's generated from an Olympic venue, they might do that.

COHEN: NPR's Howard Berkes will be covering his sixth Olympics at the 2008 Games in Beijing this summer. Thanks so much, Howard.

BERKES: Thank you.

COHEN: NPR's Day to Day continues.

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