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Italian athletes invited to show dissent at China

Aug. 06, 2008, 9:27 a.m. (ET)

ROME(AP) Two allies of Premier Silvio Berlusconi have triggered a row by asking Italian athletes to show dissent at China's human rights policies with symbolic gestures during the Beijing Olympics, including possibly boycotting Friday's opening ceremony.

The suggestion immediately sparked angry reactions from athletes and sports officials in Beijing, while back in Rome even political allies disagreed openly.

``Why are they asking sports to replace politics?'' Gianni Petrucci, the leader of Italy's Olympic Committee, said 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 dissent for China's Tibet policy and human rights record. They mentioned a boycott of the opening ceremony as a possibility.

``I'm not trying to impose, and I'm not asking for an act of martyrdom,'' Gasparri insisted in an interview in the conservative daily Il Giornale on Wednesday. ``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 by the ANSA news agency Tuesday. She added that other possible gestures might include wearing T-shirts or raising the issue during interviews.

Political allies quickly took their distances from the two officials, both members of the right-wing party National Alliance.

The country's foreign minister said in an interview published in the popular sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport on Wednesday that the goal of the Italian athletes is to win - not make political statements.

``This government respects the independence of sport and sport has rules,'' said Franco Frattini, who will be Italy's highest government official at the opening ceremony, since Berlusconi is not attending.

Frattini did stress the need of dialogue with China on Tibet and the respect of human rights. He said that ``one, however, goes to the Games to try to win.''

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 in Repubblica and other 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,'' he said.