Free Speech at the Olympics

by Roger Alford

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?

7 Responses

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  2. The Wall Street Journal has a nice story today on the “Olympics and Politics” over the past 100 years. The article is available here (subscription required).

  3. Deven Desai raised similar questions and concerns in his post “No Politics in Beijing?” back in February over at Concurring Opinions.

  4. Roger,

    Just out of curiosity, why would you oppose a boycott of the Olympic Games? I think reasonable arguments can be made in favor of participating, but I certainly don’t think they’re obvious. Personally, I’m all in favor of a boycott — I think it’s a travesty that China is allowed to milk the Games for PR purposes while ruthlessly cracking down on any protest.

  5. Kevin,

    Well I would think any calculus about a boycott would ask what the costs and benefits would be if one boycotts instead of just protests. Would it be more likely that China would change its policy on Darfur, Tibet, etc. if we boycott instead of protest? I doubt it. And the costs? Protesting is virtually costless whereas a boycott shatters the hopes and dreams of our best athletes (and also enhances the chances of reciprocal boycotting in future Olympics, e.g. the 1980 U.S. boycott reciprocated by the 1984 Soviet boycott). And boycotting is especially ineffective if only a handful of countries decide to join the boycott.

    So that would be my analysis in a nutshell.

    Roger Alford

  6. I agree with Roger on this one. While I would like to see (nonviolent) protests continue around the globe in support of the Tibetans, I suspect a boycott would, in the end, be counterproductive. Given the prodigious efforts the Chinese regime has dedicated to the planning and staging of the games, a boycott might prompt the sort of humiliation in the global arena the Chinese leadership seems particularly sensitive to: I would think it’s easier to prod and negotiate with a regime basking in the atmosphere of a successfully staged Olympics than one insecure and defensive, turned back in on itself. Of course this is quite speculative and I’m open to contrary arguments.

    One more thing: The Dalai Lama himself has repeatedly stated he does not want to see a boycott, and while I’m not clear as to his specific reasons, it would not surprise me if they were not far from the above.

  7. The other thing, of course, is that it would be hypocritical for many states to boycott the games, as few have completely clean hands.

    Also, where does it end? Should states have forbidden their sporting teams to tour the US or the UK following the illegal invasion of Iraq? Maybe they should have, but it would put an end to many sporting competitions around the world if states who had a record of human rights abuses were blacklisted.

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