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Sports

Politics could take center stage at Beijing Games

| Sunday, Feb. 17, 2008

ANTWERP, Belgium -- Veerle Dejaeghere is no gold-medal threat at the Beijing Olympics. Yet, the tiny Belgian steeplechaser is what Chinese officials fear most -- an athlete with a sharp tongue.

China is hypersensitive about political commentary, be it from a superstar or an also-ran. So it takes on greater meaning when Dejaeghere ponders whether she will wear a "Free Tibet" T-shirt in Beijing.

"Maybe. It's possible," she says, before breaking into a laugh.

The Chinese remain nervous about any athlete making political gestures that could cloud the bright face of the new superpower, an image the hosts hope to highlight at the Aug. 8-24 games.

"The situation is very bad," Dejaeghere said. "They promised the IOC to clean up their human rights record if they got the Olympics, but it hasn't happened."

The runner, who qualified for Beijing by finishing 11th in the world championships last year, is looking to Amnesty International for her inspiration and hopes to join their "Gold for Human Rights" campaign this spring.

"The only thing we can do as athletes, is to bring it to people's attention as much as possible," she said.

Just as long as it doesn't cut into her preparation to keep her 101-pound, 5-foot-2 frame in the best shape possible.

"I still have to perform in Beijing, and that is the main goal," she said.

Belgium's one outstanding sports star is Justine Henin, the No. 1 player in tennis. She was taken aback at a recent news conference when asked about the clash of sports and politics.

"I really have no opinion on this. I am going there for the Olympics, I am not going there to talk politics," she said. "It is not within my competency to talk about political issues. Everyone has a role and a place."

Anna Chatvetadze, who faced Henin at the Antwerp Diamond Games, was of the same mind.

"What can we do?" the Russian said. "We go there to play, and we have to think about that, about the sport. All the other things don't really bother us."

So far, no major sports stars have stuck out their necks. When the French sports paper L'Equipe did a full-page spread on the issue, the only competitor they could find to openly criticize Beijing over human rights was the captain of the Norwegian handball team, which might not even qualify for Beijing.

"When you are very focused on training and competing, you don't tend to think in those terms," professor Michael Holmes of Liverpool Hope University said. "Either they have no interest in being politically active or they are simply saying this is my one chance."

Still, national Olympic Committees know well about China's sensitivities and have put athletes on guard to avoid embarrassing the hosts. Many have stressed the Olympic Charter rule outlawing demonstrations and political, religious or racial propaganda within Olympic venues.

The British Olympic Association initially said this week it would contractually require its athletes to not make any politically sensitive remarks or gestures during the games. The BOA later took a more open approach.

Many realize they legally won't be able to muzzle their athletes outside the Olympic zone.

The Dutch Olympic Committee warned its athletes in a statement that "China is 'different,' and unknown territory for many." The committee said if its athletes talk about China individually "they do so in their own name and from their own social commitment."

Governments, too, are trying to avoid making waves.

"Sports is too important," said Sports Minister Milan Zver of Slovenia, which holds the presidency of the 27-nation European Union. "It is too important to use it as a political instrument."

Zver believes it is up to politicians and multinational companies and organizations to speak up.

"They should say something, more efficiently -- not the athletes," he said.

The convergence of sports and politics is hardly unique to the Beijing Games. At the 1968 Mexico City Games, U.S. track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists to decry racial discrimination at home.

The 1976 Montreal Games were spurned by many African nations, and boycotts followed at the next two Olympics. In 1980, the United States led a no-show at the Moscow Games and the Soviet Union did likewise four years later in Los Angeles.

"I would not by any means say that holding the Olympics in Moscow brought about the fall of communism," Holmes said.

Zver suggests it was the Olympics that was hurt most.

"When we go back to Moscow 1980, it was not good for sport," he said.

At the same time, Dejaeghere keeps on practicing for Beijing, with Tibet and press freedom among the things on her mind.

"It is not because you care about human rights that your performance will automatically plummet," she said.

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