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Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Restricting Athlete Expression at the Olympics

Deven Desai at CoOp writes about an attempt by British and Australian officials to require athletes to sign a provision in their contracts agreeing not to engage in expression at events and venues in criticism of China's human-rights record or other problems with China and its government. Both governments have backed off the request, saying their request was not an attempt to gag athletes, but merely an understandable miscommunication. Which, of course, is code for "we tried to restrict their speech, but we got caught and rightly called on the carpet by the public."

I had not heard about any movement afoot among athletes to speak out, although it makes sense. This is the first time in the post-Cold War era (when human rights concerns are part of the international dialog and not submerged to anti-Communist concerns and the bi-polar world) that the Games have been held in a country whose human-rights record makes it a primary target for world criticism.

Political and expressive undercurrents and meanings are unavoidable in the Olympics. Sometimes they are explicit, as in the boycotts of 1980 and 1984; sometimes they are implicit, such as the symbolism of Jesse Owens in 1936 or the U.S. Hockey team in 1980 or the return of South Africa or post-Saddam Iraq to the games. And sometimes these political acts are unacceptable to most leaders of the games (see, Tommie Smith and John Carlos). No doubt the British and Australian organizations were motivated by genuine diplomatic and foreign-relations concerns in not wanting their athletes to do anything to offend the host country. Of course, that can be taken too far. Marty Glickman was supposed to anchor the U.S. relay team in 1936; he was removed in favor of Owens because an African-American would be less offensive to Hitler than a Jew.

I recognize the delicate balancing that goes on. But I am generally inclined to agree with Deven that "[w]hatever mode of expression is best, demanding that someone sign a piece of paper to give up one’s speech runs contrary to the excellence the Olympics seeks to foster and ask of athletes and perhaps by extension of us all."


It's Deven (not Devan) Desai.

Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell -- 2/13/2008 10:01 AM  

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