Olympic Athletes Warned They Could Be Prosecuted for Criticizing China While in Beijing

Human rights activists warned United States athletes competing in the Beijing Olympics next month against criticizing China.

The Associated Press reported that while the International Olympic Committee said athletes are free to say what they want to journalists and on their social media accounts, political protests are not allowed at medal ceremonies under an Olympic Charter rule.

This rule also requires athletes follow "applicable public law," which has left some confused on which aspects of Chinese law will be enforced at the games.

At a briefing the Human Rights Watch hosted, activists said the IOC has not yet said how it would protect athletes who might speak out against China.

In a January 5 article, Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at the Human Rights Watch, called the Beijing Olympics, which are set to start February 4, a "sportswashing" of the country's recent human rights abuses.

This includes crimes against the Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang province, policies regarding Taiwan and the disappearance and reappearance of tennis player Peng Shuai after she accused a former Communist Party member of sexual assault, according to USA Today.

"If they acknowledge they can no longer sell games to the highest authoritarian bidder, they might survive 2022 by promising future games will be awarded on the basis of basic human rights and the values that athletes and fans expect them to share," Worden wrote.

Many have called for sports fans to boycott the event. The U.S. government even announced a diplomatic boycott, though according to USA Today, this is largely a symbolic move. However, some legislators have pushed for the IOC to be stripped of its federal tax-exempt status.

Athletes such as two-time Olympic cross-country skier Noah Hoffman said people competing in the upcoming games should hold their opinions on China until they are home safe.

"I am scared for their safety when they go to China," Hoffman told the AP. "They can speak out when they get back."

According to USA Today, athletes in several countries, including the U.S., were urged to leave cell phones and laptops at home due to cybersecurity concerns.

Team USA members were offered burner phones and rental computers, a technology bulletin said. The U.S. Department of State said in a travel advisory "personal possessions in hotel rooms, including computers, may be searched without your consent or knowledge."

Some Olympic athletes have spoken out on the controversies. In October, ice dancer Evan Bates told NBC Sports "I have no problems in speaking for the athletes in saying what's happening (in China) is terrible. We're human beings too and when we read and hear about the things that are happening there, we absolutely hate that."

Olympic skaters Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou echoed this sentiment in later interviews.

In a March interview with CNN, skier Mikaela Shiffrin said she did not like having to choose between morals and her work.

"And you certainly don't want to be put in the position of having to choose between human rights like morality versus being able to do your job, which on the other hand can bring light to some issues or can actually bring hope to the world at a very difficult time," she said.

Beijing, Olympic rings
Human rights groups have warned athletes against speaking out against China while in Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Above, visitors pose for photographs with the Olympic rings at the Beijing Olympic Tower on January 16, 2022, in Beijing, China. Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images