01/08/2008, 00.00
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Total media blackout for China’s Olympic athletes

Training camps are placed under armed watch. Athletes and coaches go on long retreats, announce total media blackout. Ostensibly the reason for the silence is to avoid “sport espionage” but most likely to avoid any bad publicity. As usual the public’s right to information is swept aside.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – From now till August when the Beijing Olympics start China’s Olympic athletes will be under the watchful eye and 24 hour military-style surveillance of armed police (in lieu of civilian guards and municipal police). Above all they will be under a total media blackout inside the 200,000 m2 of the National Sports Training Centre (NSTC), home to generations of Chinese sports achievers, courtesy of the State Sports General Administration. The extreme security measures, argue mainland sports officials, are to ensure a distraction-free environment for the country's Olympic athletes.

Most of the national sports teams will move into this compound over the next few months, a complex which now serves as the main base for Chinese athletes before the Olympic village opens in late July. It is estimated that around 800 elite Chinese athletes would hone their skills in the compound during the pre-Games period.

Currently, eight national teams, including the all-mighty gymnastics and weightlifting squads, have already moved in.

Usually, only ministry level government and party offices are guarded by the prestigious security service.

But “we must take precautions against any untoward situation,” said Sun Weimin, NSTC deputy director. “Armed police, with their expertise, will better ensure the order and safety of the athletes during their training.”

One obvious category of unwelcome guests is the media. Most Chinese sports officials believe media exposure can affect the athletes' mental health.

“Our studies have shown that excessive exposure to the media can disrupt Olympic preparation,” said Feng Shuyong, deputy director of the government-run track and field sports administrative centre.

The sports ministry introduced a public relations education programme to most national teams last October, teaching athletes how to deal with nosey reporters, but ended up “muzzling” athletes.

The same has happened to other national teams at training camps in other parts of the country.

In Zhangzhou (Fujian) the Chinese women's volleyball team declared they would give journalists only 20 minutes on each of the opening three days of their two-month winter training camp before becoming hermits.

In Tianjin, taekwondo team officials told journalists that “athletes and coaches will not accept any interview requests until after the end of February.”

Even Li Yongbo, head coach of the national badminton team and a well-known press darling, warned journalists of an unprecedented media blackout, telling them that “my athletes won't accept any interviews, even by phone.”

Officially the measures are also to guard against sports espionage, especially with an unprecedented Olympics medal haul high on the authorities' agenda.

Others suggest that the authorities simply want to avoid any negative publicity.

More importantly, the public’s right to know about their athletes is obviously not considered important.

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