Human rights protests rattle Olympics

With Steven Spielberg's announcement that he will not organise the opening ceremonies, the Olympic Games in Beijing may have already lost a battle. A growing chorus of athletes are starting to speak out.


Encouraged by Belgium’s green parties, decathlete François Gourmet and local 3000m steeple champion Veerle Dejaeghere joined in the protest. For François Gourmet the decision was easy to make. As he put it himself, he simply “wasn’t aware” of the issue, until he came across environment campaigners and fair trade activists. “The average Chinese woman would have to pay the equivalent of four months’ worth of her salary just to purchase a ticket for the opening ceremony. The world’s major companies manufacture their products in China in return for a pitiful wage. I wanted to use my visibility as a sports athlete to raise awareness of these issues,” the decathlete told France 24.


In France, a number of human rights associations are also hunting for athletes to sponsor their cause, yet their efforts have so far met with little success. Among them is the NGO “Ensemble contre la peine de mort”, which campaigns against the death penalty. The association’s director Cécile Thimoreau said several athletes were approached, and while most said they were moved by the cause, none of them agreed to act as a spokesperson. “Athletes are nervous about the issue and practice self-censorship,” she explains. “They are scared they may be denied a visa to China. Of course we understand their apprehension, they’ve waited four years for this event.”

Yet François Gourmet is not overly concerned about the possible repercussions. “I haven’t received any negative feedback so far,” he said. “It seems quite normal to me that I may say what I think”. He is expecting to qualify soon for the Games.

The unease is clearly apparent among the various national Olympic committees around the world. The British committee recently attempted to silence athletes tempted by activism, before making an embarrassing retreat in the face of public outrage. Earlier in February, it had asked all athletes to sign a document pledging “not to comment on any politically sensitive topic”.

“We never intended to limit athletes’ freedom of speech,” said the committee’s spokesperson Myriam Wilkins. “Our intention was to recall the rules of the Olympic Chart to our athletes, some of whom will be taking part in the Games for the very first time”. Indeed the Chart states that “no kind of political, religious or racial demonstration or propaganda is authorized on any Olympic site”. Athletes are therefore allowed to express their thoughts, but off the track.

Several committees, including the Swedish, Canadian, Czech and Italian, opted for a very different approach. Their Belgian counterpart issued a press release stating that “all participants in the Games have and will have throughout the Games the right to express themselves freely, in their capacity, on any matter they consider of importance”. Yet the Norwegian committee went even further by organizing seminars to inform its athletes about human rights and the political situation in China. As spokesperson Martin Hahfsal puts it, Norwegian athletes “are encouraged to be open-minded and outspoken”. 

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