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Beijing Olympics 9 April 2008

Confidential IOC memo on Olympic torch relay did not foresee major protests about human rights violations

Reporters Without Borders has obtained a copy of a confidential International Olympic Committee memo about the Olympic torch relay. Sent to national Olympic committees on 26 March, two days after the Reporters Without Borders protest at the torch-lighting ceremony in Olympia, it recognises that the Olympic movement may have to deal with "incidents" or "crisis" but it did not foresee the major protests on the streets of London and Paris.

Reporters Without Borders is shocked by the cynicism of this IOC memo at a time when the Olympic movement is facing an historic crisis. The press freedom organisation is waiting for the Olympic movement to take firm decisions to get the Chinese authorities to release political prisoners, guarantee complete freedom for the foreign press and guarantee free expression in Tibet.

In its 26-page memo, marked "confidential," the IOC says it has worked with the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) to prepare "response protocols" for any crisis. National Olympic Committees are asked to follow the guidelines when responding to the press and to pressure groups.

The IOC’s head of public relations, Giselle Davies, defines a crisis in these terms: "A crisis is any event or sequence of events that could potentially lead to the disruption or cancellation of a torch relay stop, or seriously affect the image of the IOC and the Olympic movement." The example given is that of a terrorist attack during the relay.

The IOC advises its members, national Olympic committees, sports federations and Olympic partners to be "humility" and "honesty" in order to avoid being put on the defensive by journalists’ questions. "The IOC should always remind the journalist/lobby group that the IOC’s influence lies in the sport arena."

The Olympic torch relay, which the Chinese are calling the "Journey of Harmony," is portrayed by the IOC as the most "ambitious" of its kind since the start of the modern Olympic Games. The memo stresses that the BOCOG is in charge of organising each stage of the relay in coordination with the local authorities.

As regards problems that could affect the torch relay, the memo lists "Security of bearers and spectators, Terrorism, Demonstrations, Mount Everest, Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square." It shows that the issues of human rights and Tibet are at the heart of the Beijing Olympic Games despites the Chinese government’s denials. But instead of offering any substantive responses, the IOC gives instructions based essentially on China’s propaganda, which rejects any attempt to politicise the games.

The ascent of Mount Everest with the torch is portrayed by the IOC as an opportunity to contribute "new meaning to the Olympic motto: Faster, Higher, Stronger." It adds that taking the "torch to the top of Everest symbolises that there are no limits to the reach of Olympic values."

As regards the controversial ascent of Everest, the IOC says it respects the rights of demonstrators but adds that "the BOCOG and local authorities along the relay will not hesitate to take action if and when needed to ensure the safety of the torch-bearer and the climbing team." In general, the Lausanne-based IOC says it refuses to "interfere with the actions deemed necessary by local authorities to maintain order and local law."

Defending the decision to hold a ceremony in honour of the Olympic flame on Tiananmen Square, the IOC calls it one of "the most famous public squares in the world." It also says it was the Beijing organisers who decided to make the square the starting point for the marathon. Reiterating that the Olympic torch’s message of one of harmony and humanity, the memo adds: "The IOC is a sport organisation. It is not appropriate for us to dictate the usage of sites that may have an historical and political significance for large numbers of people."

The IOC and BOCOG give examples of the kind of "crisis" that could occur during the torch relay. As regards demonstrations, the two organisations say they will tell the media that it is normal that some group try to use the relay to "put their cause in the news spotlight that the Beijing Olympic Games attracts."

If the relatives of "disappeared" persons demonstrate during the relay, the memo recommends saying that one shares the concerns of the families and hopes the Chinese authorities will shed light on the matter. And it is again recommended that responsibility should be put on the human rights organisations that use the games to promote their cause. In the event of an "extreme crisis," the IOC and BOCOG suggest making no comment or - the height of cynicism - expressing condolences with any victims.

In order to help the Olympic movement’s various actors handle any incident or crisis, the memo announces that a Crisis Management Team has been created under the leadership of IOC president Jacques Rogge. But it adds that the BOCOG is in charge of taking any necessary action in the field.

The memo finally reiterates the need not to interfere in China’s internal affairs: "The IOC does not feel it is appropriate to question the rules and laws of a country. (...) This does not mean, however, that the IOC cannot demonstrate that its supports freedom of expression."

Reporters Without Borders says: "IOC president Jacques Rogge is not going to extricate these Olympics from this predicament by preventing athletes, including French athletes, from expressing their views. On the contrary, he must convince the Chinese government to completely change its approach to the games. It is no longer the time to be saying, as this memo does, that criticising China will just create ’resentment and complications.’ The time has come for action to save what remains of the Olympic spirit for the Beijing games."

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