Conscientious athletes need support, not gag

1 Comment

In autumn Australians emerged from charges of poor sportsmanship by national cricketers into the simpler area of immature off-field behaviour by football heroes. But any respite has been brief because Olympians are now embroiled in political controversy. The Australian Olympic Committee has decided to include a clause in athletes' contracts that will limit their capacity for public comment during the Beijing games.

While the Committee denies the clause is a gag, the rule enabling management to veto comments not strictly related to an athlete's event could be used to prevent individual competitors commenting about the human rights situation in China.

China is attracting criticism over its suppression of protests about Tibetan autonomy. There are ongoing concerns about persecution of Falun Gong and the sale of the organs of executed people. Amnesty lists as human rights concerns 'the death penalty, torture, unfair trials, the freedom of people who defend their own and others' human rights, and specifically in the lead-up to the Olympic Games ... media and internet repression'.

A group of US athletes known as 'Team Darfur' is urging Western governments to place greater pressure on China over its support for the dictatorial regime in Sudan. When an Australian joined that movement, she stated publicly her belief that she did not have to consult the Australian IOC, because they 'have been very clear in saying we do have freedom of speech and freedom of opinion, and that's fantastic'. Something has changed.

It is easy to adopt a cynical view of the 'gag'. The Committee sponsors athletes by giving them official endorsement and financial support and so might claim the power to discipline them. It is possible for anyone who objects to the clause to withdraw from the team but this is neither practical nor desirable. Although it may seem unnatural for elite sportspeople to tailor their lives according to a distant goal, many of them would not remember a time before they began training for Beijing 2008. To make unpredictable new demands upon them within weeks of competition is tantamount to holding them to ransom for years of dedication.

Athletes with serious concerns about any incident witnessed in China would feel conscience-bound to report it. We Australians know that the freedom to participate in a sport of our choice is a result of having a free society in which governments serve the people and not vice-versa. Without human rights there is no such freedom and it would be illogical to abandon concern for rights in favour of apparent sporting opportunities.

The great hope for the Beijing Olympics was that it would make China a more open society and persuade its government that human rights protection is good diplomacy and good business. The power of persuasion would be lost if the Chinese authorities believed visiting athletes would not speak about any evil they see or hear.

Article 6 of the Olympic Charter insists that competitions are held between individuals, not between nations or states. Friendship and good will are personified by the competitors, not by governments. Despite the chauvinistic compilation of lists of medallists, the ideals of Olympism reside in all participants, not just the medallists. Many champions become millionaires because they satisfy the hopes of businesses, but many are dubious role models for young aspirants.

The Games have often been politicised and host countries have dreaded protests, boycotts and bans. Moscow (1980) was badly affected when Western governments persuaded many athletes to stay away because of the USSR invasion of Afghanistan. Los Angeles (1984) was boycotted by the eastern bloc in retaliation. China has ordered its athletes not to compete alongside those from Taiwan.

Some countries have cited human rights issues in attempting to have third parties excluded. New Zealand for example, came under pressure over a rugby tour to South Africa during the peak of the anti-apartheid movement. The IOC banned South Africa but not New Zealand and 22 countries stayed away from Montreal in protest in 1976.

As with most major sports, the biggest threat to the Olympics is from the compromise forced by the vested interests which profit most from the Games. The marketing of the television rights, for example, is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and firms bidding for a toehold know that China is swiftly becoming the world's second-largest advertising market.

Athletes are the public face of the Olympic Games. Many resisted the Fraser Government's suggestion that they boycott Moscow, because they detected the hypocrisy in a situation where neither government nor business was prepared to suffer. In 2008, athletes are caught between a host government that ignores world opinion and their own governments who seem to care more about the fortunes of business than about the conscientious dilemmas faced by their elite athletes.

The broader international community has the responsibility to ensure the survival of the Olympic spirit in Beijing. If Australian athletes need to express their conscientious concerns about human rights in China, they should not be restricted but should be encouraged to do so.

Australian Olympic athletes 'gagged'
Team Darfur
Article on IOC broadcast rights

Tony SmithTony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities, most recently at the University of Sydney.




submit a comment

Existing comments

The athletes are only multi millionaires who are interested merely in their financial advantage of gaining even more funds by their Olympic games efforts, as are the Olympic officers such as our own Kevan Gosper.

Bob | 26 March 2008  

Similar Articles

2020 Summit leaves marginalised youth cold

  • Saeed Saeed
  • 28 March 2008

The Australia 2020 Youth Summit seems destined to be a chinwag of the 'haves' to the exclusion of the have-nots. Realistic solutions to youth violence and alienation can only be achieved through holistic community approaches.


Glamour returns to post-war Australia

  • Madeleine Hamilton
  • 27 March 2008

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the first showing of Christian Dior's New Look fashion designs in Sydney. After years of wartime material restraints the New Look offered Australian women a fresh way of expressing their individuality and sensuality through fashion.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up