Potential restrictions on athletes’ speech at the Beijing Olimpiese Winterspele are “very concerning”, Australia’s sports minister, Richard Colbeck, has said after China warned of “punishment” for political comments at next month’s Games.
Colbeck said the Australian government opposed China’s advisory, and maintained athletes had the right to free speech on the Olympic stage.
“The International Olympics Committee has made it clear that all athletes have the right to political opinions and the freedom to express them including through social media and media interviews,” Colbeck said in comments to the Sydney Morning Herald.
“Any threat aimed at Australian athletes for speaking out, therefore, is very concerning and is not at all supported by the Australian government.”
Yang Shu, the deputy director of international relations for the Beijing organising committee, told a press conference on Tuesday that “dedicated departments” would investigate athletes’ comments at the Games.
“Any expression that is in line with the Olympic spirit I’m sure will be protected,” Yang said.
“Any behaviour or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.”
Yang added that “politicisation of sports” was opposed by the Olympic Charter.
Guardian Australia has contacted the offices of Colbeck and of the foreign minister, Marise Payne, for further comment.
Australia will join the US, UK and Canada in a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games, citing human rights and diplomatic concerns. Die eerste minister, Scott Morrison, said in December the federal government’s decision was “standing up for Australia’s interests”.
Human rights groups had warned athletes about making comments regarding China’s human rights record or treatment of Uyghur Muslims at the Beijing Games. Human Rights Watch also raised worries about “Orwellian surveillance state” measures, including concerns regarding a phone app that Chinese authorities have asked spectators, athletes and fans to use.
Olympic committees from several nations including the US and Canada have warned athletes about the security of their mobile devices. British athletes have been encouraged not to bring their personal phones and were offered replacements by the British Olympic Association.
The International Olympic Committee charter states “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas”. Egter, an exception was added to that rule last year ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, with athletes given the “opportunity to express their views” while conducting interviews, op sosiale media, and on the field of play before the start of competition.
That rule change also noted that athletes “are expected to respect the applicable laws, the Olympic values and their fellow athletes”.
Colbeck’s comments come days after John Coates, president of the Australian Olympic Committee and vice-president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), gave an interview to Chinese state media in which he praised the “amazing” and “wonderful” preparations for the Beijing Games.
“I have very high regard of Chinese people and their ability to organise Olympic Games,” Coates told broadcaster CGTN.
“I was the chef de mission of the Australian team for the 2008 Olympic Games, which were a great success, and my expectation is the Beijing Winter Olympic Games would be a similar success.”
Coates has been urged by human rights groups and federal senator Rex Patrick to raise humanitarian concerns with Chinese authorities, including China’s detention of Australians Yang Hengjun and Cheng Lei. But in a speech to the National Press Club in October 2021, Coates said Olympic officials had “no ability to go into a country and tell them what to do”.
“The IOC’s remit is to ensure that there is no human rights abuses in respect of the conduct of the Games within the National Olympic Committee, or within the Olympic movement,” Coates said in his speech.
“We are not a world government. We have to respect the sovereignty of the countries who are hosting the Games.
“The situations that you have referred to, the humanitarian ones in China, is not within our remit.”