Free speech concerns for Olympic athletes voiced after China warns of 'punishment'

A Chinese official said comments could be "subject to certain punishment.”

February 03, 2022, 12:59 PM

Human rights groups and U.S. officials are concerned about the safety of Olympic athletes in China if they speak out on political issues at the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing following a warning from a Chinese official about "punishment" for competitors should they do so.

Yang Shu, the deputy director of international relations for the Beijing organizing committee, said any speech against the Olympic spirit or Chinese laws would be "subject to certain punishment" during a press conference on Jan. 18. Shu did nothing to ease concerns at a press conference on Tuesday, saying that International Olympic Committee Rule 50 does include some speech regulations.

"At the medal ceremonies, they cannot make their opinions but in press conferences or interviews, athletes are free to express their opinions," Shu said Tuesday. "But athletes need to be responsible for what they say."

Shu's comments spurred human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and U.S. officials to warn athletes about speaking out and to call on the IOC to guarantee freedom of speech at the Games.

PHOTO: ZHANGJIAKOU, CHINA - FEB. 02: Olympic flags and Flag of China are seen at Medal Plaza on February 02, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China.
ZHANGJIAKOU, CHINA - FEB. 02: Olympic flags and Flag of China are seen at Medal Plaza on February 02, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China.
Maja Hitij/Getty Images

"Athletes are also being obliged to compete in this environment by an International Olympic Committee, that … seems completely unwilling or unable to actually follow through on those obligations," Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, said in an interview with ABC News.

In response to the comments during Yang's press conference, a group of representatives from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led by Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., released a statement calling on the IOC to "immediately clarify that free speech by athletes is absolutely guaranteed at the Olympics."

When reached for comment about free speech at the Olympics, the IOC told ABC News Thursday that "the Games are governed by the IOC Rules. They will be applied at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 like at any other edition of the Games before."

Despite the concern expressed by some about possible repercussions if athletes speak out, Carl Minzner, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, doesn't see a high chance of the Chinese government taking strong action.

"It's hard for me to imagine Beijing doing something really extreme, such as actually detaining or imprisoning a foreign athlete ... Doing so would likely just generate more unwanted attention," Minzner said in an interview with ABC News.

Some lawmakers in the U.S. aren't counting on the Chinese to hang back. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China held a hearing Thursday on the Beijing Olympics with panelists who work to address human rights issues in China and protect those affected.

PHOTO: A athlete skis past a Olympic rings logo during the Cross-Country Skiing training session ahead of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, Feb. 1, 2022, in Beijing.
A athlete skis past a Olympic rings logo during the Cross-Country Skiing training session ahead of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, Feb. 1, 2022, in Beijing.
Clive Rose/Getty Images

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., members of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, released a letter on Jan. 31 asking the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee what their plans were for protecting athletes, highlighting freedom of expression concerns and data privacy worries.

"We write with urgency about the safety and protection of U.S. athletes who are headed to Beijing, China, especially given the recent statement by a Chinese official about 'punishment' of athletes who exercise freedom of expression," their letter said. "We share with you our concerns on the risks to freedom of expression, data privacy and exposure to products made by forced labor."

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., held a press conference on Jan. 24 to discuss human rights abuses in China and the need for increased security measures for American athletes.

"I can't tell you how worried I am about the athletes competing in Beijing. Look at what communist China did to silence and disappear, silence and disappear, Peng Shuai," Scott said.

Enes (Kanter) Freedom, the NBA player who has called for athletes to boycott the Olympics in recent weeks, joined the Senator by phone.

Peng Shuai, a Chinese tennis player, went absent from public view last November after accusing former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into having sex in a since-deleted post on the Chinese social media app, Weibo.

PHOTO: Peng Shuai, of China, celebrates her win against Daria Kasatkina, of Russia, during their women's singles first round match on day one of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne, Australia, Jan. 16, 2017.
Peng Shuai, of China, celebrates her win against Daria Kasatkina, of Russia, during their women's singles first round match on day one of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne, Australia, Jan. 16, 2017.
Paul Crock/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Two weeks later, Peng appeared in a video where she denied having been sexually assaulted, a move the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) called "insufficient" in verifying Peng's safety. Following the incident, the WTA announced a suspension on all events in China, citing "serious doubts that she [Peng] is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation."

In a press conference on Feb. 3, IOC President Thomas Bach indicated that a meeting with Peng would occur when COVID protocols allow it to happen.

"I am very happy and very grateful to Peng Shuai. She will enter the closed-loop to have the meeting that she also wants," he said.

Although there were no known incidents of athletes facing repercussions from the Chinese government when the Olympics took place in the same host city 14 years ago, the role athletes play in the broader political discussion and how they use their platform has changed significantly since 2008, according to Richardson.

"We didn't have Colin Kaepernick, we didn't have, you know, [tennis star] Andy Murray saying he's not gonna go compete in Saudi, it's a different ballgame," Richardson said.

Free speech has been a subject of controversy in China in recent years as freedom of expression and press have come into question. Article 35 in the Chinese Constitution states that "Citizens of the People's Republic of China shall enjoy freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, procession and demonstration."

Regardless, political comments deemed inappropriate have been addressed inconsistently, experts said.

"If people say or publish views or otherwise express views that authorities don't like, they are subject to prosecution under a variety of broad laws that are often arbitrarily interpreted, "said Richardson.

The Biden administration announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Olympics in December over China's record on human rights, particularly its treatment of ethnic Uyghurs, which the United States has previously declared a genocide. The decision will prevent United States government officials from attending any events in Beijing, but will not impact the participation of any American athletes.

The 2022 Winter Olympics will take place from Feb. 4 - 20. The American Olympic team has not responded to ABC News' request for comment.

Related Topics

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events