British Olympic chiefs are to force athletes to sign a contract promising not to speak out about China's appalling human rights record – or face being banned from travelling to Beijing.
The move – which raises the spectre of the order given to the England football team to give a Nazi salute in Berlin in 1938 – immediately provoked a storm of protest.Gagged: Marathon runner Paula Radcliffe is likely to be one of those affected by the ban
The controversial clause has been inserted into athletes' contracts for the first time and forbids them from making any political comment about countries staging the Olympic Games.
It is contained in a 32-page document that will be presented to all those who reach the qualifying standard and are chosen for the team.
From the moment they sign up, the competitors – likely to include the Queen's granddaughter Zara Phillips and world record holder Paula Radcliffe – will be effectively gagged from commenting on China's politics, human rights abuses or illegal occupation of Tibet.
Prince Charles has already let it be known that he will not be going to China, even if he is invited by Games organisers.
His views on the Communist dictatorship are well known, after this newspaper revealed how he described China's leaders as “appalling old waxworks” in a journal written after he attended the handover of Hong Kong. The Prince is also a long-time supporter of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader.
Yesterday the British Olympic Association (BOA) confirmed to The Mail on Sunday that any athlete who refuses to sign the agreements will not be allowed to travel to Beijing.
Should a competitor agree to the clause but then speak their mind about China, they will be put on the next plane home.
The clause, in section 4 of the contract, simply states: “[Athletes] are not to comment on any politically sensitive issues.”
It then refers competitors to Section 51 of the International Olympic Committee charter, which “provides for no kind of demonstration, or political, religious or racial propaganda in the Olympic sites, venues or other areas”.Contention: the Queen's granddaughter Zara Phillips stands to be among the athletes who will be forced to sign the gagging order
The BOA took the decision even though other countries – including the United States, Canada, Finland, and Australia – have pledged that their athletes would be free to speak about any issue concerning China.
To date, only New Zealand and Belgium have banned their athletes from giving political opinions while competing at the Games.
Simon Clegg, the BOA's chief executive, said: “There are all sorts of organisations who would like athletes to use the Olympic Games as a vehicle to publicise their causes.
“I don't believe that is in the interest of the team performance.
“As a team we are ambassadors of the country and we have to conform to an appropriate code of conduct.”
However, human rights campaigner Lord David Alton condemned the move as “making a mockery” of the right to free speech.
The controversial decision to award the Olympics to Beijing means this year's Games have the potential to be the most politically charged since 1936.
Adolf Hitler used the Munich Games that year to glorify his Nazi regime, although his claims of Aryan superiority were undermined by black American athlete Jesse Owens winning four gold medals.
More recently, there was a mass boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
But Colin Moynihan – now BOA chairman Lord Moynihan – defied Margaret Thatcher's calls for British athletes to stay at home and won a silver medal as cox of the men's eight rowing team.
Former Olympic rowing champion Matthew Pinsent has already criticised the Chinese authorities over the training methods used on children, which he regarded as tantamount to abuse.
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Young gymnasts told him they were repeatedly beaten during training sessions.
Mr Clegg confirmed that such criticisms would be banned under the team's code of conduct, which will be in force from when athletes are selected in July, until the end of the Games on August 24.
Mr Clegg said: “During the period of the contract, that sort of action would be in dispute with the team-member agreement.
“There are all sorts of sanctions that I can apply. I had to send a team member home in Sydney because they breached our sponsorship agreement and that is the first time it happened.
“I have to act in the interest of the whole British team, not one individual. No athlete is above being part of the team.
“There is a requirement on team members to sign the agreement. If athletes step out of line, action will have to be taken.”
Darren Campbell, Olympic relay gold winner at the 2004 Games in Athens, said the BOA's move would “heap extra pressure on athletes”. But he added: “We are there to represent our country in sporting terms, just as our Army do when they go off to war. It is not supposed to be about politics.”
The BOA is taking a far more stringent stance than authorities in other countries. Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates said: “What we will be saying to the athletes is that it's best to concentrate on your competitions.
“But they're entitled to have their opinions and express them. They're free to speak.”
Jouko Purontakanen, secretary general of the Finnish Olympic Committee, said: “We will not be issuing instructions on the matter. The freedom of expression is a basic right that cannot be limited.
“But the starting point is that we will go to Beijing to compete, not to talk politics.”
Political gestures have been made at previous Olympics, most famously in Mexico City in 1968 when black American 200m champion Tommie Smith and bronze medallist John Carlos raised their fists in a black power salute.
Both were suspended from the US Olympic team and barred from the Olympic village.
Forty years on, British athletes face similar sanctions if they highlight the abuse of human rights in China.
Last night Edward McMillan-Scott, Conservative MEP and the European Parliament vice-president, predicted a public outcry over the BOA's move.
He said: “Foreign Secretary David Miliband is off to China soon. But before he gets on the plane, he and the rest of the Government should tell the BOA to take this clause out of the agreement.”
Potentially the contract means that a British athlete who witnesses someone being mistreated on the way to a stadium is forbidden from even speaking to their colleagues about it.
Competitors emailing home or writing blogs will also have to exercise self-censorship – or face having their Olympic dreams ruined.
Lord Alton said: “It is extraordinary to bar athletes from expressing an opinion about China's human-rights record. About the only justification for participating in the Beijing Games is that it offers an opportunity to encourage more awareness about human rights.
“Imposing compulsory vows of silence is an affront to our athletes, and in China it will be viewed as acquiescence.
“Each year 8,000 executions take place in China, political and religious opinion is repressed, journalists are jailed and the internet and overseas broadcasts are heavily censored.
“For our athletes to be told that they may not make any comment makes a mockery of our own country's belief in free speech.”