Govt accepts bar on athletes talking politics

01:43, Jan 31 2009

The Government says it is comfortable with plans to make New Zealand's Olympic athletes sign contracts pledging not to comment on political issues while in China.



New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) officials were accused yesterday of trying to muzzle freedom of speech.

A clause in the Beijing 2008 contracts requires athletes "to not make statements, demonstrate (whether verbally, or by any act or omission) regarding political, religious or racial matters".

Sports Minister Clayton Cosgrove told The Press the clause was there for the athletes' protection.


"We all support freedom of speech. But this is entirely a matter for the New Zealand Olympic Committee, which is an independent body.

"It is designed to ensure that athletes are not treated as political pawns so they can concentrate on their sport."

The Green Party wrote yesterday to the NZOC asking it to amend contracts, guaranteeing the right to speak freely while in China.

"I am asking our Olympic Committee to take out the offending clause," said Green MP Keith Locke.

"Not to do so would put us at odds with other Western countries ... that are allowing their athletes freedom of speech."

New Zealand and Belgium have been named in European, American and Asian newspapers this week as among the few countries imposing restrictive clauses in contracts.

After a public outcry, Britain backed off a plan for its Olympians to sign up to a clause saying they were "not to comment on any politically sensitive issues".

The British Olympic Association said this week it would redraft the agreement.

The US bars its athletes from political comment and demonstrations at Olympic venues only.

NZOC Secretary-General Barry Maister did not respond yesterday to a request for an interview.

But a spokeswoman said the clause muzzling athletes had been in contracts for at least eight years.

"I think the British situation might be a little different in that they had added a specific line into their contract to deal with issues around China," she said.

"It is not something we have considered doing around China at all. Not mixing politics and sport is something really important to the Olympic Games and you would need the whole Olympic Charter examined."

Asked if an athlete could be sent home for making a political statement, such as wearing a "Free Tibet" T-shirt, she said such a thing had never happened in the past. Cosgrove also dismissed such an event as unlikely. He said he understood the NZOC had the support of the Athletes Commission.

The commission was set up in 1986 as an organisation within the NZOC to provide a voice for athletes in decision-making.

Confusing rules and the desire of some countries to avoid offending their Chinese hosts in August have created both misunderstanding and attempts by some national committees to censor their athletes.

The Olympic Charter seeks to prevent athletes using the Games as a political platform at the risk of disqualification and the withdrawal of accreditation.

The International Olympic Committee has been criticised for being disingenuous by trying to separate politics from the Olympics.

When China was chosen as host seven years ago, officials said they hoped the decision would promote improvements in human rights.

Activists and lawmakers around the world are hoping to capitalise on this year's Olympics by pressuring Beijing on a range of issues, from human rights and freedom of religion to Taiwan and Tibet.

The Press