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Winter Olympics: Athletes warned over speaking out on human rights issues

Athletes at next month’s Beijing Winter Olympics face punishment for behaviour that is against the spirit of the Games or Chinese rules, an official has said.

It comes after Human Rights Watch held a briefing to warn of the dangers of athletes speaking out at the Games.

Athletes were told to “stay silent” about human rights issues as they will “not be protected” in an “Orwellian surveillance state”.

The Games start on 4 February, followed by the Winter Paralympics from 4 March.

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China has been accused of committing genocide against Uighurs and other mainly Muslim peoples, an allegation China has repeatedly rejected.

“Any expression that is in line with the Olympic spirit I’m sure will be protected and anything and any behaviour or speeches that are against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment,” said Yang Shu, deputy director general of Beijing 2022’s International Relations Department.

Yang suggested that a possible punishment could be the cancellation of athletes’ accreditation.

When asked for a response, the International Olympic Committee referred to rule 50.2 of its guidelines, which protect the neutrality of sport and of the Games.

“The Games are governed by the IOC Rules, they will be applied at Beijing 2022 like at any other edition of the Games before,” it said.

The IOC relaxed a ban on protests before the Tokyo Games last summer, allowing athletes to “express their views” during news conferences – but political demonstrations are still banned on the medal podiums.

Nordic skier Noah Hoffman says he feels “fear” for athletes over “the lack of the ability to speak freely”.

“My advice for athletes who are there and my hope for athletes who are going there is to stay silent,” said Hoffmanm, speaking at the Human Rights Watch seminar.

Figures including NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom have criticised the IOC for awarding the Games to China and called on athletes to boycott the event.

Countries including the UK, US, Australia and Canada have said they will not send diplomatic officials to the Games as part of a boycott over China’s alleged human rights breaches.

Minky Worden, a director at non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch, which conducts research and advocacy on human rights, said: “Throughout history among the most powerful advocated and voices for change have been athletes. However in China athletes will be surveilled and their rights to free speech and protest curtailed.

“It is unprecedented in the modern Olympic era that athletes have to weigh their personal safety and security while also having to compete at the highest level. It’s really a tragedy.”

Global Athlete – an athlete-led group seeking “positive change” in world sport – said it is “ridiculous” that athletes are being told to wait until they return home to protest but warned they cannot expect protection from the IOC.

“The IOC has not come out proactively to indicate it will protect and make sure everyone is safe that decides to speak up; silence is complicity and that’s why we have concerns,” said Global Athlete director general Rob Koehler.

“We know the human rights record and the freedom of expression allowance in China so there’s really not much protection that we believe is going to be afforded to athletes.”

Speaking to BBC Sport last week, Andy Anson, chief executive of the British Olympic Association, said athletes must be “sensible” and will not be stopped from expressing their views, but said they should seek advice from the BOA.

The US has accused China of genocide in its repression of the predominantly Muslim Uyghur minority in the western region of Xinjiang – an allegation China has repeatedly rejected.

Relations are also strained over China’s suppression of political freedoms in Hong Kong, and because of concerns for the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who retreated from public life after she accused a top government official of assault.

China has dismissed the concerns but Human Rights Watch has warned the country’s policing of digital channels has changed markedly since it hosted the Summer Games in 2008.

Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, said: “One of the features of the 2008 Games was the authorities’ use of what then was considered high technology, that pales into comparison to the Orwellian surveillance state the authorities use across the country now.

“Tools like Artificial Intelligence and predictive policing, big data bases and extensive surveillance on social media platforms keeps people from engaging in certain types of conversations. I think anyone who is travelling to the country for these Games, journalists, athletes, coaches needs to be aware that this kind of surveillance could actually affect them too.”

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