ATLANTA — The U.S. Olympic Committee wants American athletes to focus on being good guests, not outspoken reformers, when they get to the Beijing Olympics.
USOC chairman Peter Ueberroth acknowledged Friday that the upcoming Beijing Games will be different because they’ll shine a light on China. But he insists the focus should be on the Olympics, and not so much on their newest host country.
“We don’t just go there, we get invited there,” Ueberroth said Friday at the close of a USOC board meeting. “We accept the invitation, and then there’s a set of rules that are IOC rules. We accept those rules. We expect and are sure that our athletes are going to respect their own country, respect their flag, respect the flag of every other country.”
The International Olympic Committee charter contains bylaws that say the Olympics are not to be used as a political platform. With the games coming to the world’s last communist superpower in less than six months, much has been made of China’s record on human rights and free speech, to say nothing of its pollution and questionable food-safety practices.
The Beijing Olympics, many believe, are a golden opportunity to expose the problems.
Ueberroth said he’s heard many of the same complaints before — four years ago in Athens, at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles that he helped make a success, and with pretty much every other Olympics in between. But he expects these games to be “literally, the best ever.”
“This is a virulent worldwide disease that takes place before any Olympic Games, and that’s that the doom-sayers all come out and every worst-case scenario is portrayed,” Ueberroth said. “I think it’s fair for people to do that, but it seems like business as usual.”
Of late, Britain’s Olympic federation has caused a stir with one potential plan for athletes to wear masks during competition to fight pollution, and another calling for athletes to sign an agreement stating they will not use the Olympics as a political platform. The federation has assured the agreement will not be a restriction on free speech.
A Dutch lawmaker this week suggested a boycott of the opening ceremonies to protest China’s human-rights record.
Mia Farrow has been loud in her calls for China to use its influence with Sudan to help end the conflict in Darfur. China is a major buyer of Sudan’s oil and is regarded as one of that isolated government’s closest international partners.
Farrow’s campaign was bolstered by Steven Spielberg, who pulled out of serving as an artistic adviser for the opening and closing ceremonies because he said he could not reconcile working on the Olympics while China and other nations were not doing enough to ease the suffering in Darfur. American speedskating gold medalist Joey Cheek has spoken out, co-founding the Team Darfur athletes coalition to bring attention to the cause.
Ueberroth agrees with the notion that the Olympics are bigger than sports — “They provide a gift to the world of transparency,” he said — but he does not buy into the notion that the USOC should be independently promoting change in China.
“In one sense, it’s China’s Olympic Games, but all they are is a host,” he said. “All Los Angeles was was a host. All Athens was was a host. It really is the Olympic movement and you participate under their rules and guidelines, all their procedures and their protocols.”