LONDON (Reuters) - British Olympic chiefs backed down on Sunday after their plan to bar UK athletes from speaking out about politics or human rights during the Beijing Olympics ran into strong criticism.
The British Olympic Association (BOA) said earlier that, to be a member of the British team, athletes would have to agree to a contract stating that they “are not to comment on any politically sensitive issues” involving the host country.
After a barrage of criticism from politicians and media, the BOA acknowledged it may have gone too far and would look again at the contract.
“This is not our intention, nor is it our desire to restrict athletes’ freedom of speech and the final agreement will reflect this,” BOA Chief Executive Simon Clegg said in a statement.
The BOA’s proposed contract was attacked by the Mail on Sunday which said it effectively gagged athletes from speaking out about politics, human rights or Beijing’s rule of Tibet.
The newspaper likened the clause to an order given to the England football team to give a Nazi salute at a match in Berlin in 1938.
Conservative sports spokesman Jeremy Hunt demanded the BOA withdraw the “ridiculous requirement”, saying British athletes must have the right to speak freely in China.
The BOA said it had only wanted to draw athletes’ attention to a rule in the Olympic charter barring political propaganda at Olympic venues. But it acknowledged its proposed contract may have gone further than that.
BOA spokesman Graham Newsom said the wording of the proposed contract could still be changed. He said the BOA’s goal was to focus Olympics’ coverage on sports, rather than politics.
He said the BOA had not come under any pressure from Chinese authorities to include the clause.
Students for a Free Tibet UK, a group campaigning for independence for Tibet, welcomed Clegg’s assurance.
“Tibetans in Tibet do not have freedom of speech. It’s my hope that the British Olympic Association does not impose a similar situation on British athletes while in China,” spokesman Iain Thom said.
The Mail on Sunday said only Belgium and New Zealand had so far banned their athletes from giving political opinions at the games. Other countries, including the United States, Canada, Finland and Australia, were letting their athletes speak about any issue involving China, it said.
Activists around the globe are seizing on this year’s Olympics to pressure Beijing on a range of issues, from freedom of religion to Taiwan and Tibet.
Prince Charles -- a longstanding supporter of Tibet and its spiritual leader the Dalai Lama -- will not attend the Beijing Olympics, a spokeswoman said last month, declining to give a reason.
A leading state-run newspaper said last month that China would never submit to political pressure from groups or governments wishing to use the Beijing Olympics to change Chinese policy.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said then that China’s progress in protecting the rights and freedoms of its citizens should be recognised and the Olympics should not be politicised.
Editing by Richard Meares