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U.S. Olympic athletes must decide for themselves when they protest

July 1, 2008

Do you make a political statement by expressing your opinion on the world's biggest stage? Or do you remain quiet by treating the

Olympics as a sporting event?

Those questions await an estimated 600 U.S. athletes next month at the Beijing Games, where demonstrations could bring China's human rights record under further scrutiny and embarrass the communist superpower.

The U.S. Olympic Committee will not set restrictions on speech, leaving the door open for American athletes to sound off in Beijing as long as they're in compliance with the Olympic charter.

Rule 51.3 of the International Olympic Committee's bylaws states: "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

It means U.S. Olympians can wave Tibetan flags around Tiananmen Square and walk Beijing's streets in "Team Darfur" shirts. They cannot unfurl the flags at news conferences or wear the shirts on the medal stand.

"There's no pressure," softball star Jennie Finch said. "We're there to celebrate with the world in a healthy, competitive environment."

That environment has been filled with political displays, most notably the black-gloved fists of sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Mexico City Games, condemning U.S. racial discrimination.

French athletes, including judo competitor David Douillet, asked the IOC for permission to wear a "For a better world" badge and Belgian steeplechaser Veerle Dejaeghere threatened to sport a "Free Tibet" shirt.

Several national Olympic committees have assumed a proactive approach. Others aren't doing anything.

British athletes must sign a clause in their contracts prohibiting them from making politically sensitive remarks. Belgian athletes can't wear anything protesting Chinese human rights issues.

Like the Colorado Springs-based USOC, leaders of national Olympic committees in Australia, Canada, Germany and New Zealand won't institute guidelines beyond the Olympic charter.

"We would prefer that the athletes do what they want to do," said Jim Scherr, chief executive officer of the USOC. "If they feel compelled to stick their neck out and make a statement, they can do that. If they want to focus on their training, they should be left alone to focus on their training."

Added USOC chairman Peter Ueberroth: "We expect and are sure that our athletes are going to respect their own country, respect their flag, respect the flag of every other country and operate, as we all will, under the IOC rules of the Olympic Games."

In an April speech, IOC president Jacques Rogge said, "We do ask that there is no propaganda nor demonstrations at Olympic Games venues for the very good and simple reason that we have 205 countries and territories represented, many of whom are in conflict. And the Games are not the place to take political nor religious stances."

Finch's teammate, Jessica Mendoza, called Olympians "great advocates" for awareness, albeit with limitations.

"Our goal is to fight the battle on the field," Mendoza said. "As much as I want to create awareness, when I step into that arena in Beijing, I have nothing but wanting to win a gold medal on my mind."

Soccer player Heather O'Reilly agreed.

"We are going over there to play a sport," she said. "We hope to make change. We hope to create an environment where we can bring the world together. But it's a lot of responsibility for an athlete to undertake."

Check out our Olympics blog at

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