No united stand for Olympic athletes on human right issues
Athletes share differing views on tackling issues in China.9 April 2008
PARIS - Around the globe, athletes are plodding on lonely training runs, sweating in gyms and straining in pools, united by a common goal: to be faster, higher and stronger at the Beijing Olympics.
But there's no unity when it comes to protests, boycotts and political demonstrations - over Tibet or other human rights issues in China.
Some argue the Olympics should be free of politics, while others say athletes with a conscience must speak out. And still others are unsure how to react or seem uncomfortable with the whole thing.
Asked if he would wear a ribbon for Tibet or boycott the opening ceremony, top-ranked Swiss tennis player Roger Federer said: "No, not so far. I don't think I will."
"Honestly, I don't know enough about the situation. I don't know how much we athletes should be involved in this," Federer said. "It should be a celebration of sport and not using it for political reasons."
Weighing on athletes' decision-making is Rule 51, subsection 3, of the Olympic Charter, which says: "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."
In short, athletes who pull out "Free Tibet" banners in Beijing could be sent home.
For the moment, athletes pushing for a more activist approach seem to be in the minority. French pole vaulter Romain Mesnil, who rejects the "activist" label, has recently been sounding out others about ways to show their commitment to human rights.
He says China's Tibet crackdown was a turning point for him. Initially, he suggested athletes wear a green ribbon or other symbol - something both discreet and visible - when competing.
That evolved into a badge, marked "For a better world," that Mesnil and nearly two dozen current and former French athletes unveiled Friday. They want the International Olympic Committee to let them wear it in Beijing, a request that could come up in Olympic officials' discussions this week on how to interpret and apply Rule 51 at the games.
Mesnil says an athlete boycott of the opening ceremony also "is very interesting" and "can be one of the possibilities."
German fencer Imke Duplitzer has said she will not take part in the ceremony if she qualifies. Cyclist Thor Hushovd of Norway told his country's Faderlandsvennen newspaper that he, too, could join such a protest.
"As actors at the games, we have to make ourselves heard. As athletes, we have to display Olympic values and human values," Mesnil told The Associated Press. "We don't want to be mere pawns. In the current debates, we get a little bit of the impression that we are being told, 'You athletes do what you have to do, and let us take care of the rest. It is not your problem.' I say no."
Mesnil said that if enough athletes wear the same symbol in Beijing, the IOC could not throw them all out.
But there are many who have no plans to speak out, saying it is not their role, that they are too busy training, or that they want to keep the games focused on sports. Even though there is no momentum internationally for a boycott of the entire games, athletes are concerned their years of toil could go to waste.
United States sprinter Sanya Richards said "politics and sports should always be separate."
"Anytime you mix sports and politics, the athletes usually lose out," said Richards, who won gold in the 2004 Athens Olympics in the 1,600 relay. "That's what happened in 1980 when we boycotted and nothing came out of it."
Olympic floor gymnastics gold medalist Kyle Shewfelt of Canada said on his Web site that the games should be about the athletes.
"Why is it OK to even consider sacrificing athletes' dreams on behalf of making a statement?" he wrote.
Amelie Mauresmo said the IOC shares some blame for giving the Olympics to China.
"It gets on my nerves that we athletes are the ones who are going to have to do something about the human rights and things in Tibet," the 2006 Wimbledon and Australian Open champion said. "The people in the IOC should have never let Beijing in these conditions be the host city for the Olympics. Or make sure things are going to be right."
[AP / Expatica]