Don’t muzzle our athletes at the Beijing Olympics

It is time our sports officials gave up trying to say politics and sport do not mix.

It is precisely because they do mix that our Olympic officials are requiring New Zealand athletes at the Beijing Olympics to sign contracts by which they must “not make statements or demonstrations (whether verbally, in writing or by any act or omission) regarding political, religious or racial matters”.

This is an outrage. Why should New Zealanders’ freedom of speech be constrained when they travel to represent this country? Why should they be gagged because the host country for the Games has such little respect for human rights? Must we lower our democratic standards to the Chinese level?

Our Olympic officials say the ban has been in place for the last eight years and in any case, it is consistent with the Olympic charter. The ban attracted no controversy at the time of the last Games in Athens because the host country has an uncontroversial human rights record. But it seems clear the policy was put in place eight years ago for the very reason that Olympic officials looked ahead and saw the China human rights disaster looming.

It is a piece of verbal gymnastics for our Olympic officials to say the contract is consistent with the Olympic charter. The International Olympic Committee does not see it this way.

“Should a journalist ask an athlete a question, the athlete should respond as he or she sees fit,” says the IOC spokesperson, Giselle Davies.

Under criticism, the New Zealand Olympic Committee has begun one of those embarrassing backdowns. Instead of saying it made a mistake, NZOC communications manager Ashley Abbott is reported as saying athletes will not be muzzled. She says they will be allowed to express views on the regime in China if they want to.

“If one of our athletes were asked their feelings on an important issue, it would be absolutely their prerogative to answer as they see fit,” she says.

So why is the ban written into the athletes’ contract? The NZOC is reported as saying the contract simply offers athletes protection from comment on issues they felt would detract from their performance in Beijing. If anyone can work out what that piece of double-speak means, please let me know.

The question remains as to why athletes from around the world will be free to speak their minds, but New Zealand athletes will sign censorship contracts. Why is it that the sensitivities of the Chinese regime resonate so strongly in New Zealand? Why are we virtually alone in gagging our athletes?

It seems clear that one of the reasons is that among the crowd of countries attending the games, only New Zealand is negotiating a free-trade agreement with China.

This agreement is seen as a coup by the Clark government. It has been several years in the making, with negotiations finally ended and just a couple of months remaining while all the complex details are checked and rechecked before a classic photo opportunity is organised for Helen Clark to sign away yet more quality New Zealand jobs at the altar of the free market with the Chinese Premier.

It would be a disaster from the Government’s point of view if this went off the rails because a Kiwi athlete stirred controversy by pointing to the elephant in the room which is China’s abuse of human rights.

Politics have always mixed with sport at the Olympics. This year marks the 40th anniversary of possibly the most famous political statement made at any Games.

It was 1968 in Mexico at the height of the civil rights struggle in the United States. Black US athlete Tommie Smith won the 200m sprint in a world record time. When he stood on the winner’s podium alongside bronze medal winner John Carlos, they raised black gloved fists in a powerful symbol of resistance to racial oppression. Smith also wore a black scarf to represent black pride and black socks (no shoes) to represent the poverty of blacks in racist America. The iconic image of this brave duo will resonate down the centuries after their athletic prowess is long forgotten.

It may well be that Chinese organisations seize the opportunity, with the world spotlight on Beijing, to protest in the struggle for free speech and trade union rights.

If that happens, we should encourage our athletes to use their freedom of speech to actively support those in China who are denied the same rights. That is what we should expect a good athlete to do.

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