- The Washington Times - Monday, February 11, 2008

LONDON (Agence France-Presse) — The British Olympic Association backed down yesterday in the face of outrage at attempts to force athletes competing as this year’s games in China to keep silent on political issues.

The BOA confirmed a newspaper report that it had included a clause in a 32-page contract for its athletes, requesting them “not to comment on any politically sensitive issues.”

The Mail on Sunday newspaper said the BOA had told the athletes that anyone refusing to sign the agreement would not be allowed to travel, and any British participant who signed it and then spoke out during the games would be sent home.

As protests strengthened, BOA chief executive Simon Clegg said he accepted that the “interpretation of one part of the draft BOA’s Team Members Agreement appears to have gone beyond the provision of the Olympic Charter.”

“This is not our intention nor is it our desire to restrict athletes’ freedom of speech and the final agreement will reflect this,” he said.

Mr. Clegg was quoted earlier by the weekly newspaper as saying it was not in the interests of the British team for athletes to use the Olympics to publicize the cause of interest groups, including human rights.

The BOA pledged to look again at the wording after British-based rights groups Amnesty International and Liberty accused it of trying to gag free speech and a former lawmaker accused the association of “appeasement.”

“People in China can’t speak out about human rights without fear of reprisals; people in Britain can,” said Amnesty’s campaign director, Tim Hancock.

“It’s up to each individual to decide what they think and what they say about China’s human rights record and that goes for athletes too. What is disappointing is the suppression of such legitimate views by the BAO.”

A Liberty spokesman said: “It would be both un-British and un-Olympian to attempt to muzzle the speech and conscience of athletes attending these games. The price of hosting such a totemic event is greater political scrutiny.

“Sport should spread international values, not totalitarian ones.”

The Mail on Sunday compared the BOA request with an order from Britain’s Foreign Office and Football Association for England’s soccer players to give the Nazi salute before a friendly game against Germany in Berlin in 1938.

It published a black and white photograph of the team, their right arms raised, saying it was still a “national disgrace” 70 years later.

The game was played weeks after dictator Adolf Hitler had annexed Austria and during Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy toward Nazi Germany, which was seen as a failure and forced him out of office.

David Mellor, a former minister in Prime Minister John Major’s government, wrote in a comment piece that the BOA’s clause was a “squalid attempt to suppress legitimate criticism of the Chinese regime by British athletes.”

He called on Mr. Clegg to “pause and consider what effect kowtowing to totalitarian governments had in the run-up to the Second World War: None on the dictators, lasting shame on the appeasers.”

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