Olympians may have to choose their words carefully during February's Beijing Winter Games. The International Olympic Committee said the Olympic Charter Rule banning protesting at medal ceremonies also forces athletes to follow "applicable public law."
China has worked to silence dissenting voices such as tennis star Peng Shuai, who accused former Chinese Communist party leader Zhang Gaoili of sexual assault before disappearing for weeks. Peng reappeared in Beijing on Nov. 20, 18 days after she made the allegations on social media, but China -- which deleted Peng's post shortly after it went live -- has so far refused to investigate the issue.
"While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation," WTA CEO Steve Simon said in a Dec. 3 statement. "The WTA has been clear on what is needed here, and we repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation – without censorship – into Peng Shuai's sexual assault accusation."
According to the IOC, athletes can enjoy freedom of speech while speaking with journalists or posting to social media during February's Winter Games. The committee hasn't, however, announced any measures to protect protesting athletes from Chinese persecution, per the AP.
Olympians' public comments likely won't be the only ones being watched in Beijing. Countries such as the U.S., Great Britain and the Netherlands have implored athletes to use disposable electronic devices while overseas to avoid Chinese surveillance.
The Global Times, China's state-run newspaper, deemed the surveillance concerns "fake news" in an op-ed after the Dutch Olympic Committee said it is "anticipating Chinese surveillance during the Games."
China has come under fire for its policies regarding Hong Kong and Tibet, among other issues, drawing public criticism from sports figures such as Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter and Philadelphia 76ers president Daryl Morey. Global Athlete Group director general Rob Koehler suggested Olympians may suffer greater consequences if they, unlike Kanter and Morey, criticize China from the country itself.
"Silence is complicity and that's why we have concerns," Koehler said during a Tuesday briefing hosted by Human Rights Watch. "We know the human rights record and the allowance of freedom of expression in China, so there's really not much protection."
The Beijing Winter Olympics are slated to begin Feb. 4.