Athletes at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics have been warned they could be punished for behaviour that is against Chinese rules.
The message comes after human rights groups told athletes they were better off staying silent for the duration of the Games, which start on February 4.
A Human Rights Watch panel said athletes should expect they will "not be protected" in an "Orwellian surveillance state".
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Yang Shu, deputy director general of Beijing 2022's International Relations Department, conceded there will be “certain punishments” if athletes break the law.
"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.”
Acts of protest at the Games are generally against International Olympic Committee rules.
But as well as concerns over China’s human rights record there are also worries over surveillance and security. A report this week revealed that a Games phone app which is mandatory for athletes and officials has “glaring security vulnerabilities" which could put it at risk of being hacked.
“One of the features of the 2008 Olympic Games (in Beijing) was the authorities’ use of what was then considered high technology,” Dr Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch, said at the Human Rights Watch panel.
“That pales in comparison to the Orwellian surveillance state the authorities use across the country now, where tools like AI and predictive policing, big data databases, extensive surveillance of social media, keeps people from engaging in certain types of conversation.
“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.”
Great Britain's Laura Deas, who will be competing at the Games for a second time in the skeleton, told Eurosport that she believes the competition can be a "huge force for positive change".
"I don’t personally have any concerns, I think it’s really important that athletes can speak their mind, I’m a huge supporter of that.
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“I really think that once we get into the swing into the Olympics and everyone sees the incredible spectacle that it is, that it will be a huge force for positive change. That’s something I’m really keen to be a part of.”
Yaqiu Wang, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch, believes the disappearance of tennis player Peng Shuai should serve as “a good indicator of what could possibly happen” if athletes do speak out.
In November, former Wimbledon and Roland Garros doubles champion Peng accused a former Chinese Communist party vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli, of alleged sexual coercion three years ago.
Her Weibo social media account was then disabled and her public appearances have been sparse since, with continuing concerns over her well-being and safety.
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“Chinese laws are very vague on the crimes that can be used to prosecute people’s free speech,” she said. “There are all kinds of crimes that can be levelled at peaceful, critical comments. And in China conviction rate is 99 per cent.”
US skier and former Olympian Noah Hoffman thinks athletes would be better off speaking when they return home.
“Athletes have an amazing platform and ability to speak out, to be leaders in society and yet the team is not letting them field questions on certain issues ahead of these Games.
“But my advice to athletes is to stay silent because it would threaten their own safety and that’s not a reasonable ask of athletes. They can speak out when they get back.”
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