Olympic Gag Order

Athletic politics


Prince Charles once referred to China's leaders as "appalling old waxworks," but the British Olympic Committee seems to find them intimidating enough.

"British athletes will have to sign a contract promising not to comment on any politically sensitive issues" during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, British Olympics Association spokesman Graham Nathan told CNN in February. They will be presented with the contract as soon as they qualify in Olympic trials, and athletes who violate the gag order by discussing, say, China's dismal human rights record can be barred from competition and put on the next plane home.

Officials say they are merely trying to comply with Section 51 of the International Olympic Committee charter, which "provides for no kind of demonstration, or political, religious or racial propaganda in the Olympic sites, venues or other areas." But critics note troubling parallels between this contract and a low point in British sporting history: The British soccer team, at the prodding of the British Foreign Office, lined up for a Nazi salute in the Berlin Olympic stadium before a friendly game with Germany in 1938.

China is hustling to put on its best face for the Olympic games in August, much as Germany did when it hosted the games shortly before World War II. While public persecution may be brought to a halt, dissidents such as the human rights campaigner Hu Jia are quietly being put under house arrest or otherwise taken out of circulation.

Many countries, including the United States, Canada, and Australia, have promised not to restrict their athletes' political speech about China in the run-up to the games. In Britain, a public outcry has produced promises to "review" the U.K.'s policy, so the Brits may yet fall in line with their Anglosphere cousins.