Mar 07 Uproar over Italian suggestion of dissent in China

Aug. 06, 2008, 7:51 a.m. (ET)

ROME(AP) Two allies of Premier Silvio Berlusconi have triggered an uproar by asking Italian athletes to protest China's human rights policies with symbolic gestures during the Beijing Olympics - even possibly boycotting the opening ceremony.

The suggestion that athletes could even boycott Friday's opening ceremony sparked angry reactions from Italian athletes and sports officials in Beijing, and even Berlusconi's political allies back in Rome.

``Why are they asking sports to replace politics?'' Gianni Petrucci, the head of Italy's Olympic Committee, asked Wednesday from Beijing. ``Why don't they ask businessmen to desert China?''

The controversy broke earlier this week when Giorgia Meloni, the minister for youth policies, and Maurizio Gasparri, a senior coalition member and former minister, separately proposed a symbolic gesture to show disapproval over China's Tibet policy and human rights record.

Although he was invited, Berlusconi himself is not attending the opening ceremony. Berlusconi, 71, has danced around the issue, saying only that temperatures in Beijing are too hot.

``I'm not trying to impose and I'm not asking for an act of martyrdom,'' Gasparri insisted in an interview Wednesday in the conservative daily Il Giornale. ``But the freedom of people and of the West is at stake: I would like it if our athletes could launch a small, symbolic gesture.''

Meloni lamented that the issue of human rights appeared to be increasingly pushed to the backburner.

``We need a strong gesture from Italian athletes - so even boycotting the inauguration could be an important signal,'' the minister was quoted as saying Tuesday by the ANSA news agency. She suggested other possible gestures might include wearing T-shirts or raising the issue during interviews.

Even political allies quickly distanced themselves from the two officials, both members of the right-wing National Alliance party.

Foreign Minister Franco Frattini was quoted Wednesday by the daily Gazzetta dello Sport as saying Italian athletes' goal is to win - not make political statements.

``This government respects the independence of sport and sport has rules,'' said Frattini. ``(One) goes to the Games to try to win.''

Frattini, who will be Italy's highest government official at the opening ceremony, did stress the need for dialogue with China on Tibet and respecting human rights.

In Beijing, Italian athletes were united in protesting the suggestion.

``Why desert the opening ceremony? At that point better to boycott the Games altogether,'' heavyweight champion Clemente Russo was quoted as saying by several Italian news reports.

Italy's flagbearer and Olympic medalist, canoeist Antonio Rossi, said the world should continue talking about China after the Olympics.

``Now, let's make way for the races. Let sports speak,'' Rossi said.

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