In a rare departure, the International Olympics Committee said that it “regrets that political statements were made during the closing ceremony of the torch relay in Tibet,” referring to comments made by Communist Party chief in the Tibet Autonomous Region Zhang Qingli, a well-known hardliner who has a leading role in the current crackdown.

“We welcome a public statement by the IOC in response to Chinese officials using an Olympic stage to denounce the Dalai Lama and assert their claims over Tibet,” said John Ackerly, President of the International Campaign for Tibet.

The IOC letter to BOCOG sets a precedent for how it will respond to China using Olympic venues for overtly political statements. The InternationalCampaign for Tibet calls on the IOC to treat all political statements from Olympic venues equally and not discriminate based on content or deliverer.

“If it intends to eject athletes or others from Olympic venues for making political statements, it should treat political figures the same way,regardless of their nationality,” Mr. Ackerly added.

In an email to ICT, Communications Director Giselle Davies said: “We have written to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Organising Committee (BOCOG) to remind them of the need to separate sport and politics and to ask for their support in making sure that such situations do not arise again.” Ms Davies did not answer questions posed by ICT as to whether the IOC would take possible further action in order to ensure that such comments were not made during the Olympics itself, such as seeking an apology, or requesting that Zhang Qingli not attend the ceremonies.

On the Olympic stage in Lhasa, on the official leg of the torch relay on Saturday (June 21), Zhang Qingli had said: “Tibet’s sky will never change and the red flag with five stars will forever flutter high above it … we will certainly be able to totally smash the splittist schemes of the Dalai Lama clique.” He added: “In order to bring more glory to the Olympic spirit, we should firmly smash the plots to ruin the Beijing Olympic Games by the Dalai clique and hostile foreign forces inside and outside of the nation,” he said. The transcript of Zhang’s speech on the website of the Tibet Information Office website omitted the line about the Dalai Lama. Tight security was in place in Lhasa for the torch relay; Lhasa citizens were told not to leave their houses or look out of their windows, and there was a climate of fear throughout the city in the aftermath of protests and riots in March.

Zhang Qingli’s comments were consistent with rhetoric throughout his career as Party Secretary of the TAR since March 2005. In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel a year after his appointment, he said: “I have never understood why a person like the Dalai Lama was honored with [the Nobel Peace Prize].We do not know how much longer he will live. We believe that good people live longer while bad people live shorter lives.” (August 16, 2006). Zhang Qingli, who is 57, has assumed a leading role in the crackdown against the protests in recent months, enforcing an intensified implementation of ‘patriotic education’ in monasteries, nunneries and the lay society in the region which requires even schoolchildren to write lengthy denunciations of the Dalai Lama. His virulent rhetoric against the Tibetan religious leader has led to widespread resentment in Tibet and has provoked further unrest.