Foreign Olympic Athletes Risk Penalties for Speech That Violates Chinese Law

Human rights activists are urging athletes in Beijing to avoid criticizing China because they could be prosecuted

The Olympic flame is seen at Beijing Olympic Tower in China
The Olympic flame is seen at Beijing Olympic Tower in China.
Lintao Zhang/Getty

Olympic athletes at next month’s Winter Games in Beijing who are accustomed to having freedom of speech and the protections it provides may be wise to keep their mouths shut lest they face prosecution and punishment for speech that violates Chinese law.

Per International Olympic Committee rules, “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” is already prohibited at Olympic venues. And, though the IOC has assured athletes they will have freedom of speech at next month’s Winter Games when speaking to journalists or posting on social media, the Olympic Charter rule prohibiting political protests at medal ceremonies also requires “applicable public law” to be followed. As public speech laws in China are more restrictive than they are in many countries, speaking out would seem to carry a real risk of punishment.

“Any expression that is in line with the Olympic spirit I’m sure will be protected,” Yang Shu, the deputy director general of international relations for the Beijing Organizing Committee, said in a news conference. “Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.” When asked, the director general declined to answer what the maximum punishment could be for political demonstration at the Games.

Whatever the potential punishment might be, activists at a seminar hosted by Human Rights Watch are advising athletes against criticizing China while in Beijing for their own safety and well-being, per Reuters. “There’s really not much protection that we believe is going to be afforded to athletes,” said Rob Koehler, the director general of the Global Athlete group. “Silence is complicity and that’s why we have concerns. So we’re advising athletes not to speak up. We want them to compete and use their voice when they get home.”

Athletes may also want to be careful what they type and text on their mobile phones as a China-produced mobile app that’s mandatory for all participants in the Beijing Olympics contains security flaws that could make it easy for a hacker to steal sensitive personal information, Canadian cybersecurity researcher firm Citizen Lab warns.

Per Citizen Lab, the My 2022 app will be the method for Games participants to upload their travel plans, passport details and health information before arriving in China. The app can also be used for chat messaging, translation services and arranging transportation, according to The Wall Street Journal. Within one version of the app, Citizen Lab researchers found a list of about 2,400 keywords that could be considered politically sensitive.

Due to reports like this as well as general concerns about data privacy and spying in China, some European Olympic teams have advised athletes not to take personal telephones and laptops to Beijing.

“We know the human rights record and the allowance of freedom of expression in China, so there’s really not much protection,” Koehler said. “Any person with a sane mind who hears all these things must have concerns.”

The Beijing Games are set to open on February 4.

Win the Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix Experience

Want the F1 experience of a lifetime? Here’s your chance to win tickets to see Turn 18 Grandstand, one of Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix’s most premier grandstands!