US Olympic officials deny giving athletes Beijing warning


House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi previously urged Team USA hopefuls not to risk incurring the anger of the Chinese government

Team USA officials have claimed that their athletes are free to make their own choices on speaking out at the Beijing Winter Olympics, which goes against the advice of Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi.

“We didn’t issue warnings, we didn’t issue proclamations,” claimed US Olympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland at a press conference in Beijing on Friday.

“We simply provided information to them and explained that [regardless of the] laws of a country, or cultures or norms of a country, or the environment that we find ourselves in, the Olympic Games are a time to come together in the spirit of sportsmanship and Olympic values, and we promote that with real sincerity.”

Amid a diplomatic boycott, however, championed by Pelosi and Senator Mitt Romney, US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) chair Sarah Lyons pointed out that officials were “very opposed” to “having the athletes bear the burden of trying to send a message that the government wanted to send” and perhaps even boycott the competition themselves.

“We think that diplomats and government agencies should be working one with the other to resolve the world’s difference,” Lyons added. “And we think that the athletes should be able to do what they do best, which is come together with other athletes from around the world in a demonstration of peace and harmony.

“So we worked very hard with our government to try to make that differentiation to allow our athletes to come and represent our country, and do what they have been training all their lives to do, and to allow the members of our respective governments to work out their differences among themselves,” Lyons went on.

“From our perspective, this was an appropriate resolution to this, and certainly much preferable to an athlete boycott.”

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© Clive Rose / Getty Images
The big questions for the Beijing Games

Pelosi advised Team USA athletes on Thursday to avoid the risk of “incurring the anger” of the Chinese government “because they are ruthless” towards those that speak out on matters such as the alleged human rights abuses of ethnic Uighur Muslims.

“I know there is the temptation on the part of some to speak out while they are there. I respect that,” Pelosi conceded. “But I also worry about what the Chinese government might do to their reputations, to their families.” 

Despite Team USA’s insistence that athletes are free to speak their minds, a Beijing 2022 deputy director of international relations, Yang Shu, recently confirmed athletes could have their accreditation canceled or be hit with “certain punishments” for comments that go against the Olympic spirit. 

“Any expression that is in line with the Olympic spirit I’m sure will be protected,” Yang outlined.

[But] any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.”

In the same week in mid-January, Nordic skier Noah Hoffman claimed that Team USA indeed told its members to evade touchy topics for their own good. 

“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,” the 32-year-old lamented. “That makes me upset.”

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The Beijing Winter Games get underway on February 4. © Getty Images
US warns Olympic athletes not to speak out in China – report

“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,” he said, in words that echoed Pelosi’s.

The Games got underway on Friday through an opening ceremony that team chief Rick Adams claimed would have a possible record 80% attendance from 177 of the total 223 Team USA athletes at Beijing 2022.

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