How Much Freedom Of Speech Will Team USA Athletes Be Guaranteed At The Winter Games? Here’s What Organizers And Human Rights Groups Say

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By Lisa Kim

Originally published by Forbes on 2 February, 2022

Team USA athletes are arriving in China to compete in the Winter Olympic Games amid a global pandemic—not the only unusual element of the Games as athletes have been advised to use burner phones instead of their personal devices over concerns of possible surveillance, and activists have urged them to avoid being critical of China because they could risk being prosecuted. Here’s what organizers and human rights campaigners have said about freedom of speech at the Winter Games:

Key Facts

Christophe Dubi, executive director of the IOC, told Bloomberg TV in August athletes will “no doubt” have freedom of speech at the Beijing Winter Games as they did at the Tokyo Summer Games, which was the first Games to be held under the IOC’s eased rules allowing athletes to practice political demonstrations in certain conditions. 

The IOC has said athletes will have the same freedom, including during media interviews and social media activities.

But political protests—or any criticism of the government—are extremely rare in China, and the Associated Press reported Human Rights Watch has advised athletes to avoid speaking out against China because the ambiguity of Chinese laws on crimes could be used to “prosecute people’s free speech.” 

Chinese law comes into the picture not only because the Games are happening on Chinese soil but rule 50.2 of the Olympic charter prohibits “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” at Olympic sites, and requires athletes to comply with “applicable public law or regulation.” 

Yang Shu, deputy director general of the Beijing Winter Games’ international relations department, said at a news conference last month that expression within the realm of the “Olympic spirit” will be protected, but warned, “Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations are also subject to certain punishment.”

Yang has also said “dedicated departments” will investigate comments made by athletes during the Games, the Guardian reported. 

What To Watch For

Athlete protests that may take place at the Games that will run February 4-20. Ahead of the 2008 Summer Games, Beijing set up “protest parks,” or three demonstration zones, in response to criticism that it allegedly crushed human rights to avoid any disruption to the Games. All applications for permits were withdrawn or declined, and Reuters reported at least one person was arrested after applying for a permit. 


At the Tokyo Summer Games, women’s soccer players from the U.S., Canada, and Japan, among other athletes, took a knee to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Nearly half of the 3,547 athletes from 185 countries said in an IOC survey it was “important” to have a moment to express their thoughts. Nearly 70% polled supported forbidding athletes from taking a knee or staging political protests on the podium. 


Some activists have called for Olympians to use their influence to speak out about China’s alleged mistreatment of ethnic minorities. Last week, Lhadon Tethong, the Tibet Action Institute director, urged athletes to speak up: “Your silence is their strength. That is what they want more than anything: that the world will play by China’s rules, that we will follow China’s lead, that we will look away from these atrocities and crimes for the sake of business as usual.” 

Key Background

While it is unlikely Beijing will punish Olympians for their speech, it is no secret that those critical of the Chinese government have been put behind bars or disappeared after angering authorities. Last month, free-speech advocate Yang Maodong was confirmed to have been detained by Chinese authorities, his sister said. Human rights expert Renee Xia, senior researcher at the Washington D.C.-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders, told the Wall Street Journal that Beijing was tightening its grip over the country “pre-emptively to strike out any potential dissent and criticism.” The disappearance of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai in November after she accused a powerful Chinese politician of sexual abuse is also an example of censorship in that country. Her social media post instantly triggered online censors that prohibited users from leaving comments on Peng’s verified social media account, and blocked online searches of the word “tennis” and her name. Peng’s disappearance shed fresh light on China’s alleged human rights abuses, including repression of the Uyghur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region. China has denied accusations of human rights abuses. Its denial has done little to appease worries. Citing human rights concerns, President Joe Biden last month announced a diplomatic boycott of the Games. Australia, the U.K., Canada and Denmark have since joined the diplomatic boycott.

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