CHICAGO (Reuters) - A nervous smile steals across Jessica Mendoza’s face when the U.S. Olympic women’s softball player is asked whether she plans to demonstrate her outrage over China’s policy on Darfur at the Beijing Games.
“I’ve thought about that...I don’t have a plan. My first goal is to talk to other athletes there,” said the 27-year-old Mendoza.
She is one of a handful of Olympic athletes to sign up for Team Darfur, an informal, 300-strong group created two years ago by former American speed skater Joey Cheek to draw attention to the conflict affecting millions in western Sudan.
International experts estimate that some 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million been driven from their homes since rebels took up arms in Darfur five years ago. Washington calls the violence genocide, a term European governments have been reluctant to use.
China, which is a major investor in Sudan’s oil industry and the country’s largest supplier of weapons, has been accused by human rights groups of not doing enough to press the Sudanese government to end the bloodshed. It has also faced harsh criticism from Western governments for a bloody crackdown in Tibet.
Mendoza, women’s soccer player Abby Wambach and some other athletes appearing at a U.S. team media summit ahead of the Games were struggling with a dilemma: a desire to express their views on the violence in Darfur and Tibet, while clinging to the belief that sport should be insulated from politics.
“Are we human? Do we have consciousness? Of course. By winning the gold medal, we can best express our sense of unity,” Wambach said.
Several athletes said they did not want to violate what they described as the peaceful, communal spirit of the Olympics which features participants from more countries than there are members of the United Nations.
They also wanted to avoid offending their Chinese hosts, distracting from their team mates’ achievements or risking their own long hours of training for a moment of controversy that might have little impact.
“We are truly focused on our training,” said gymnast Shayla Worley, 17. “We’re young...we leave all the political stuff to other people, that’s their job.”
Pro-Tibet protests following the Olympic torch relay have stolen headlines in the run-up to August’s Games.
Politics has occasionally intruded on the Olympics in the form of boycotts, violence or excessive displays of nationalism, but China’s debut as hosts in the light of the Tibetan unrest has intensified political sentiments.
Some have suggested that world leaders should consider boycotting the Games’ opening ceremony. Actress Mia Farrow sought a one-month “Olympic Truce” in Darfur and elsewhere but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it had “no political mandates to instruct countries how to behave.”
Film director Steven Spielberg withdrew from his role as an artistic advisor to the Games to protest at China’s inaction over Darfur.
A few countries sought to have athletes sign pledges not to demonstrate in Beijing but backed off after a public outcry. Cheek said governments might be pressuring athletes not to speak out at the Olympics.
U.S. Olympic Committee chief Jim Scherr said athletes were free to speak their minds but ought to do it privately and not violate Article 51 of the Olympic charter.
The rule states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
“I‘m not going to ask anyone to (unfurl a protest banner) because it would risk them being sent home from the Olympics,” Cheek said in a telephone interview from Princeton University where he is studying economics and Chinese.
“That being said, making some sort of gesture, showing that you believe the Olympics can stand for more than just a sporting competition, that idea is sound,” Cheek, 28, said.
He said he understood the “fantastic pressure” athletes were under, having trained all their lives for a few moments in the spotlight. That spotlight also offered them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak out, he added.
Forty years ago, U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos grabbed the moment and faced scorn in some quarters for raising their fists in a black-power salute on the Olympic medals podium in a protest against racial discrimination.
“They were expected to go to the Olympics, represent the U.S., win medals...and come home and be second-class citizens,” Cheek said.
Some in Mexico City that day sat in stunned confusion and the athletes were ostracized for some time after their long-planned protest, recalled Olympic historian John Lucas.
At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a subtle protest by Korean marathon winner Sohn Kee-chung went largely unnoticed for years, Lucas said. Sohn, having been forced by Japan’s occupation of Korea to compete for Japan with a Japanese name, bowed and shook his head during the playing of the anthem -- saying later he was protesting with every fiber of his being.
Editing by Clare Fallon