Free Speech at the Olympics
Free speech at the Beijing Olympics is becoming a hot topic. IOC President Jacques Rogge held a press conference last week taking a firm line restricting all political speech anywhere at an Olympic site.
Rule 51.3 of the Olympic Charter provides that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or areas,” a principle that has been in the Olympic Charter for more than 50 years in order to preserve the universality of the Games. “The application of this regulation is common sense,” explained Rogge, adding that without this rule, Olympic competitions and ceremonies could be used as a stage for all different kinds of political statements about armed conflicts, regional differences of all kind, religious disputes and many others.
“If athletes genuinely want to express their opinion, that’s fine,” Rogge continued. “But let’s not forget, there is also the right not to express an opinion. Athletes should feel no moral obligation to speak out. They deserve the right to focus on their preparations and should not be made to feel obliged to express themselves if they do not wish to. The IOC and the National Olympic Committees have the duty to protect them from any kind of pressure. In any case, I do not expect there will be many incidents (of breach of rule 51). Athletes are mature and intelligent people. They will know what they can say or not say. If they have doubts, the IOC and the NOCs are here to guide them.”
I have mixed feelings about this issue. I would strongly oppose any boycott of the Olympic games, but I am troubled by the prospect of a prior restraint on political speech at any Olympic venue or site. What qualifies as a “demonstration” or “political propaganda”? Can an athlete walk around the Olympic village with a yellow ribbon attached to his shirt to symbolize his support for a Free Tibet? Can athletes discuss with reporters (or publish blog posts from their Olympic village apartments) about anything political, such as China’s human rights record, the great firewall of China, Darfur, or its lax intellectual property record? And if free speech is restricted in the Olympic areas, will there be free speech zones somewhere at or near the Olympics, as was the case at the 2002 Olympics in Utah?