How far can athletes go if they plan Olympic protests

Olympic officials appear unsure about what will happen to athletes who stage protests against host country China during the Beijing Games. ( dpa )

The Olympic Charter outlaws any kind of political statements in Olympic areas, but it is not fully clear whether a winner who decides to wear a "Free Tibet" T-shirt at the medal ceremony will be stripped of the gold.

Neither Swedish IOC vice-president Gunilla Lindberg of Sweden nor veteran German IOC member Walter Troeger were able to clear up the issue when asked on Wednesday by Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

China's crackdown on protests in Tibet and its human rights situation in general may have so far not led to a full boycott threat, but athletes appear ready to speak and act over the issue during the August 8-24 Games.

German pole vaulter Anna Battke said she was ready to stage a protest during the opening ceremony and hoped for others to join in. Another German vaulter, Danny Ecker, suggested that athletes could wear armbands to protest against the Chinese.

The German Olympic Committee has encouraged its athletes to speak freely within Olympic rules. There was a controversy in Britain when Olympic Committee BOA attempted going one step further by trying to gag its athletes by making them sign a special clause.

But BOA spokesman Graham Newsom said: "We're not trying to gag athletes. If an athlete gets asked a direct question they will be allowed to answer that question, but there is a difference between giving an honest answer to actually going out to make a specific political point."

The incident shows that athletes must be careful not to overstep the limits, outside the Olympic area as well.

Even retired triple jump star Jonathan Edwards agreed, saying that "there has to be some team discipline - there has to be some sense of pride, order and decorum in representing your country."

The Olympic charter says in article 51 that "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

The bylaw of the same article says: "No form of publicity or propaganda, commercial or otherwise, may appear on persons, on sportswear, accessories or, more generally, on any article of clothing or equipment whatsoever worn or used by the athletes or other participants in the Olympic Games.

"Any violation of the provisions of the present clause may result in disqualification or withdrawal of the accreditation of the person concerned. The decisions of the IOC Executive Board regarding this matter shall be final."

There is only one precedent, the famous political statement by African-American sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos at the 200 metres victory ceremony 1968 in Mexico City.

Smith and Carlos raised a black-gloved fist into the air as they bowed their head, the gesture of the Black Power movement. Australian silver medallist Peter Norman supported their protest by wearing a human rights badge.

The IOC was outraged, suspended the two and pressured the US Olympic Committee into kicking them out of the Olympic Village.

Smith and Carlos were allowed to keep their medals, and it remains unclear whether "disqualification" in the bylaw means that protesting athletes in Beijing could be disqualified and stripped of medals retroactively or whether it only applies to possible further events they contest.

"I don't know what the consequences would be," said Lindberg. Troeger said: "If an athlete wins a medal without without violating the competition rules he can not be stripped of the medal," but he quickly added "This is my interpretation of the rule."

Protests in Beijing will be even more delicate because they will be directed against the host nation itself.

In the boycott-marred Moscow Games 1980, a number of countries decided to use the Olympic Flag rather than their own one in the Opening ceremony and at medal presentations in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which prompted the US-led boycott.

There was no open criticism on the Soviet Union from athletes, but it remains to be seen what happens in Beijing.

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