Saturday, July 7, 2007

Olympics official bemoans China protests

By JOHN RICE, Associated Press Writer
Thu Jul 5, 10:41 PM ET

GUATEMALA CITY - A leading IOC official complained that political groups are using the 2008 Beijing Games as a platform for protests against China's government, and insisted that the games are "a force for good."

Hein Verbruggen, the International Olympic Committee member overseeing Beijing's preparations, said that "all-too-often-unrealistic expectations" were being placed on the games, which begin in August 2008.

"The way in which the games are being used as a platform for groups with political and social agendas is often regrettable," he told the IOC's annual assembly in a report on preparations for the games.

Verbruggen said that while Olympic officials might be sympathetic, they cannot allow the protests "to distract us from our primary mission" of putting on the games, which he said were progressing well.

Verbruggen did not specify any particular organization, but a range of human rights and political activist groups have urged the Olympic movement to press China on an array of issues, including its treatment of dissidents, involvement in Sudan and on autonomy for Tibet.

Olympic officials have been wary of plunging into political controversies, though they won some promises from Chinese organizers — notably a vow of free press coverage.

With Chinese officials looking on, Verbruggen pointedly quoted from China's agreement with the IOC that "there will be no restrictions on journalists in reporting on the Olympic Games."

"Both media authorities and Chinese authorities are learning to adapt to a different way of working together," he said. "The huge step should not be underestimated, even if there is still work to do."

He said it was "unquestionally a positive development, brought about thanks to the Olympic Games" and urged the Chinese to deal with controversies that he said "threaten the reputation of the Beijing Games."

"The Olympic Games are a force for good," he said.

The Paris-based press-rights group Reporters Without Borders used the IOC meeting this week to launch a campaign demanding changes in Chinese policies.

"All those who love sports cannot fail to be shocked by the way the Olympic Games and its participants have been taken hostage by Beijing," the group said in a news release that accused the Chinese government of keeping in prison about 100 journalists, free-speech activists and Internet users.

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