Olympics 2022 -- China has warned athletes not to protest in Beijing. What happens if they do?

AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

Olympic officials and the Chinese government have warned athletes at the Winter Olympics against staging any protests at competition venues or on the medal stand, saying they could violate Olympic rules as well as Chinese law. But if history is a guide, that message is likely to go unheeded.

The International Olympic Committee has long prohibited "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda" at Olympic sites, although the rule was tweaked before last year's Tokyo Summer Games to allow for protests made "without disruption and with respect for competitors."

But in the days leading up to the ongoing Winter Games in Beijing, China added an ominous new wrinkle. Yang Shu, deputy director general of Beijing 2022's International Relations Department, said any protesters that violate "the Olympic spirit" or Chinese law could be subject to unspecified punishment by the host country.

The warning -- which human rights groups have advised Olympians to take seriously -- comes during an era of rising demands for social justice that are echoed by activist athletes across the globe. China faces particular scrutiny for its human rights practices, including the detention of more than 1 million Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in its western Xinjiang province as part of what the U.S. government and others have labeled a genocide.

Some U.S. officials worry that American athletes could face harsh sanctions if any protest upsets Chinese sensibilities. "Being an American citizen is in itself not protection from adverse treatment by the Chinese government," read a Jan. 28 letter to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee from a congressional commission that monitors human rights abuses in China. "As the Commission has documented, Chinese authorities have imposed exit bans on U.S. citizens, and even jailed foreign nationals, for political or specious reasons."

Concern about the limits of free speech in China burst into the international spotlight late last year when Chinese tennis star -- and three-time Olympian -- Peng Shuai took to social media to accuse China's former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. Almost immediately, Peng's post was scrubbed from the internet, and she disappeared from public view, prompting concern for her safety. She resurfaced weeks later in videos where she withdrew her allegations and said she was safe -- a turnaround that some critics worry was coerced by the Chinese government.

Despite the warnings, protests tied to this year's Olympics have already begun, although it remains to be seen whether athletes will join in from Beijing. In December, the U.S. announced a diplomatic boycott of the event, meaning no top government officials are attending.

In October, as officials presided over the lighting of the Olympic torch that was ferried from Olympia, Greece, to Beijing's National Stadium, protesters with a Tibetan flag and a banner saying "no genocide games" found their way into the event.

In the weeks and months leading up to the Games, U.S. snowboarder Shaun White, a three-time gold medalist, posed on social media with a flag from Tibet, a region of China that activists say has long endured government oppression. Also, U.S. figure skaters Timothy LeDuc and Evan Bates have pointedly criticized China's human rights record in comments to reporters.

Researchers who study athlete activism say it is unclear what will happen if athletes speak up against China or stage protests that offend authorities in Beijing.

"I definitely think that athletes are going to be even more cautious headed into the Games when it comes to protest and using their voice, given the messaging from the IOC and China," said Yannick Kluch, director of outreach and inclusive excellence at Virginia Commonwealth University's Center for Sports Leadership. "But I also think if there are athletes who are outspoken, they are not going to be deterred."

Any action taken by China to punish protesting foreign athletes would quickly escalate beyond sports and become a diplomatic incident, he added. "I don't know if that pressure would be enough to protect these athletes," Kluch said. "I do think protest is very real possibility, but I also think the outcry globally would be very intense" if the Chinese were to exact any punishment.

Whatever protests do occur in Beijing would be in keeping with a long Olympic tradition. Irish track and field star Peter O'Connor staged perhaps the first act of political protest in Olympic history at the 1906 Games in Athens. He had entered the Games to represent Ireland, but newly enacted Olympic rules forced him to compete for Great Britain. To protest, he climbed a flagpole in the Olympic stadium and waved a green flag emblazoned with the words "Erin Go Bragh," or "Ireland Forever." Days later, O'Connor went on to win three gold medals.

Probably the best-known Olympic protest took place in 1968, when American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their gloved fists in what they called a human rights salute from the medal stand in Mexico City.

Other athlete protests have followed. Among them: At the 2004 Games in Athens, Iranian judo world champion Arash Miresmaeili refused to fight Israeli athlete Ehud Vaks, to protest Israeli treatment of Palestinians. In Rio de Janeiro in 2016, as Ethiopia's Feyisa Lilesa crossed the finish line to win silver in the marathon, he crossed his arms in an X gesture made in support of the Oromo people. And just after the IOC revised its rules governing protests last year, numerous athletes in Tokyo protested, including all the players from the Japan and Great Britain women's soccer teams, who took a knee on the pitch to support Black Lives Matter.

The IOC has never stripped medals from protesting athletes, Olympic historians say, but it has sent some home and banned others from future competition for demonstrations the committee determined crossed the line.

The stakes are raised in Beijing, where the government has a record of imprisoning dissidents for political protests and even social media critiques. Most observers think it unlikely that foreign athletes would face similar sanction, but the Chinese have not publicly ruled that out.

"What the Chinese are saying is 'well, you have to respect the laws and rules of the host country,'" said David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian. "But the thing is you're not going to know until you get to the airport to leave the country if you're being detained."