Winter Olympians warned to be careful what they say during Beijing Games

Preparations are almost finished for the 2022 Winter Olympics which formally open in Beijing on Friday.

The chair of the Beijing Winter Olympics Athletes’ Commission has warned competitors that they “need to be responsible” if they decide to speak out about controversial issues.

Athlete freedom has been one of the hot topics before these Games, with human rights groups warning there could be consequences for talking about events in Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang. However, the former speed skater Yang Yang, who won two short-track golds at the 2002 Winter Games, insisted that athletes would be free to talk in mixed zones and interviews under the IOC’s rule 50, which covers “athlete expression” – although podium protests would be banned.

But her words at a press conference on Tuesday were ambiguous enough that some in the audience felt she was warning athletes not to publicly criticise China’s human rights record.

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“We have Rule 50 from the IOC charter,” said Yang, who is also vice-president of the World Anti-Doping Agency. “It says very clearly about the freedom of speech for athletes, what kind of expressions they can make, at what time, during what events. Athletes are role models for the world and there is a lot of attention on them. They have their opinions and if they want to share that, that is important.

“There are very strict rules in the charter. At the medal ceremonies, they cannot make their opinions but in press conferences or interviews, athletes are free to express their opinions. But athletes need to be responsible for what they say. We’ll work with the IOC and make sure that Rule 50 is strictly followed.”

Yang’s comments follow others from Beijing 2022 deputy director general, Yang Shu, who said last month that athletes could be punished if their comments on human rights issues are “against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations”.

Meanwhile the Olympic Games executive director, Christophe Dubi, has suggested that venues in Beijing could be between a third and a half full when the action starts in earnest after Friday’s opening ceremony.

“There is going to be a scheme for spectators, which is going to be community-based, making sure we have a presence of spectators in the stands, and at the same time, having safety for all participants,” Dubi said. “In terms of capacity we are not there yet, because it has to be fine-tuned at a venue-by-venue basis, but I’d say if we have one person out of three [available spots] or out of two, that would already be a good result.”

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