In a move that raised criticism and comparison to the "order given to the England football team to give a Nazi salute in Berlin in 1938," British athletes are "expected to follow the Olympic Charter, drawn up by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which outlaws political acts."
According to The Daily Mail, "British Olympic chiefs are to force athletes to sign a contract promising not to speak out about China's appalling human rights record – or face being banned from traveling to Beijing." Athletes violating the agreement will be sent home.
As noted in the Chicago Tribune, US Olympic Committee spokesman Darryl Seibel said no "U.S. athlete would be reprimanded or censured for expressing a critical opinion about China's human rights record, so long as it is done in an appropriate setting. The code of conduct that 2008 U.S. Olympians will sign asks them only to respect the terms of the Olympic Charter."
Said Sibel, "We will not prohibit free speech, but in speaking with our athletes, most seem to feel it would be highly inappropriate to use the Games as a forum to make a political statement."
Rule 51 (3) of the Olympic Charter says, "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues, or other areas." In layman's terms, athletes can say, do and wear what they please, so long as it is not done in Olympic Village.
British human rights activists and athletes alike are torn.
From the Daily Mail piece: Darren Campbell, Olympic relay gold winner at the 2004 Games in Athens, said the BOA's move would “heap extra pressure on athletes”. But he added: “We are there to represent our country in sporting terms, just as our Army do when they go off to war. It is not supposed to be about politics.”
While we often on this site criticize athletes and celebrities alike for the vocal, and sometimes misinformed, political advocacy, we recognize that there are few global forums that match the Olympic games for its international exposure. And certainly there is a precedence for athletes and competing nations using the Games to shed light on international social injustices.
In addition to the 1938 incident (the Games in which Jesse Owens took home 4 golds with Hitler looking on), past Olympic political "defiance" includes the 1980 boycott of the Moscow games in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos' black power salute in Mexico City, which resulted in each's suspension.
While athletes themselves may be gagged at the Beijing Olympics, the threat of censorship itself will certainly elevate public consciousness of issues surrounding the Chinese government, as well as other relevant issues across the globe.