Source: Robert Besser

BEIJING, China: A Chinese official has announced that there will be “punishment” for Olympic athletes if they speak out on political issues at the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, spurring concerns from human rights groups and U.S. officials.

Yang Shu, the deputy director of international relations for the Beijing Olympic organizing committee, said any comments violating the Olympic spirit or Chinese laws would be “subject to certain punishment,” during a press conference on January 18.

“At the medal ceremonies, they cannot make their opinions, but in press conferences or interviews, athletes are free to express their opinions,” Shu said. “But athletes need to be responsible for what they say.”

In response, a group of representatives from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led by Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., called on the IOC to “immediately clarify that free speech by athletes is absolutely guaranteed at the Olympics.”

The IOC responded, noting that “The Games are governed by the IOC Rules. They will be applied at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, like at any other edition of the Games before.”

However, Carl Minzner, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, does not believe the Chinese government will take strong action.

“It’s hard for me to imagine Beijing doing something really extreme, such as actually detaining or imprisoning a foreign athlete. Doing so would likely just generate more unwanted attention,” Minzner said in an interview with ABC News.

Some lawmakers in the U.S. are not counting on the Chinese to hold back. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China held a hearing this week on the Beijing Olympics, with panelists testifying on human rights issues in China.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., members of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, released a letter on January 31 asking the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee what their plans were for protecting athletes, highlighting freedom of expression concerns, along with keeping athletes’ data safe from hacking.

“We write with urgency about the safety and protection of U.S. athletes who are headed to Beijing, China, especially given the recent statement by a Chinese official about ‘punishment’ of athletes who exercise freedom of expression,” their letter said. “We share with you our concerns on the risks to freedom of expression, data privacy and exposure to products made by forced labor.”

Free speech has been a subject of controversy in China in recent years, as freedom of expression and press have come into question. Article 35 in the Chinese Constitution states that, “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China shall enjoy freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, procession and demonstration.”

Regardless, political comments deemed inappropriate have been addressed inconsistently, experts said.

The 2022 Winter Olympics will take place from February 4 through 20.