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British Olympians taking the stiff upper lip thing too far

With six months still to go, this is how organized the organizers of the Beijing Olympics believe they are already: The four words that strike fear in the hearts of events planners the world over don’t scare them one bit.

The British are coming!

The British are coming!

Well, yes, they are, along with several hundred other nations.

Unlike nearly all of the other attendees, however, they’ve promised to hold their tongues throughout the stay, even if there’s a run on sunscreen and warm beer.

The British Olympic Association confirmed Sunday any athlete who competes at the Games must sign a contract that for the first time includes a clause pledging not to make politically sensitive remarks or gestures while in China, at the risk being sent home.

Never mind that Section 51 of the International Olympic Committee charter already contains language barring competitors from engaging in any “kind of demonstration, or political, religious or racial propaganda in the Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” The muckety-mucks running Britain — and perhaps Belgium, which put their athletes on notice last month — appear so intent on cutting trade deals with China that they’ve effectively signed away their athletes’ free-speech rights.

So here’s a few other touchy subjects you might not read or hear much about in British newspapers or on TV come August: the host government’s sketchy record on human rights; its brutal repression of Tibet and inaction in Darfur; its continuing crackdown on freedom of speech and the press; and maybe even whether the Peking duck is better in Soho than Beijing.

On the other hand, BOA spokesman Graham Mewson said his countrymen will be allowed to “honestly” answer questions on those topics if they come up during an interview. But “an athlete who decides to lift up his team shirt to show a ’Free Tibet’ one below it,” Mewson added, “that’s very different.”

Rather than fight temptation, Prince Charles has already said he’ll be completely clothed and far away. The heir to the British throne announced last month he’s skipping the Olympics to show support for Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Small wonder the 72-year-old Nobel laureate isn’t likely to drop by the homestead anytime in August, either.

“The goal of all of his schemes,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said recently, “is to split the motherland, sabotage ethnic unity, sabotage China’s relations with other nations and interfere with the Olympic Games.”

If the Chinese sound paranoid, it’s with good reason.

Some athletes have expressed concerns about competing in the choking pollution that hangs over Beijing and some countries are making plans to bring their own food. Media companies have been haggling with the organizers over where they can put cameras and what can be shown.

Even actress Mia Farrow got in a few good licks, thanks to her work on behalf of the U.S.-based advocacy group, Dream for Darfur. The group has criticized China’s willingness to prop up the Sudanese government by staging mock Olympic-style torch-lighting ceremonies at the sites of other mass killings.

“Some organizations are trying to make some sensations,” Jiang said. “This is to undermine the preparation work of the Olympics and we are firmly against that.”

They’ve got the IOC on their side — “the way the Games are being used as a platform for groups with political and social agendas is often regrettable,” committee member Hein Verbruggen said — but almost nobody else. That’s why muzzling British athletes won’t work, and even if it did, wait until the hosts hear some of the sound bites the Yanks and Aussies get off in the same tongue.

Human-rights groups cite other attempts by the government to tighten controls on dissent, including limiting media access to social and labor activists and others it considers “troublemakers.” Such heavy-handed tactics might have been more effective in the days of “Candid Camera.” What the Chinese hosts are about to learn is that this is a YouTube age.

Besides, if the Olympic movement has proven anything, it’s that the sterner such measures are, the likelier they are to backfire.

A slim, black sprinter named Jesse Owens threw a wrench into Hitler’s propaganda machine and the myth of Aryan superiority at the 1936 Berlin Games by winning four golds, including the long jump on his next-to-last attempt thanks to a tip from his biggest rival, German Luz Long.

Owens was one foul from being disqualified when Long introduced himself and instructed Owens to mark a spot on the takeoff board several inches behind the launch point and jump from there. With Hitler looking on from the stands, Luz was among the first people to congratulate Owens.

“You can melt down all the medals and cups I have,” Owens later wrote, “and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment.”

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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