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Juggling free speech for Beijing Olympics

As Britain shifts position, U.S. Olympians learn they can say what they want -- in certain areas.

February 12, 2008|Philip Hersh | Special to The Times

"But that does not include making proactive statements or gestures, be they religious, political or other. There is a time and place for those, and that is not within the sporting arena of the Olympic Games."

The IOC often is criticized for being disingenuous when it tries to separate politics from the Olympics.

That criticism has intensified because IOC officials said when their members elected China seven years ago as 2008 host that they hoped the decision would catalyze change.

"All the members are well aware that this election has a political significance, and for all the members I have spoken to, human rights is an issue," IOC vice president Thomas Bach of Germany said in 2001.

"Some will feel you should not give the Olympic Games to a country unless it lives up to a certain standard of human rights. Others will feel awarding the Games may help to liberalize a country."

When asked to apply pressure for reform, the IOC has chosen to emphasize its limited power.

"We are not a government, we are not the representative of all the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] of the world," IOC President Jacques Rogge told Reuters last August. "We stand for human rights, we stand for strict social values, but we are only a sports organization."

Jim Scherr, the USOC chief executive, shares that point of view.

"As an organization that is not a political one, we certainly don't believe our role is to pressure the Chinese government," Scherr said.

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Philip Hersh covers Olympic sports for The Times and the Chicago Tribune. Tribune correspondents Oscar Avila, Alex Rodriguez and Christine Spolar contributed to this report.

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