PARIS (AFP) – International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge promised yesterday that athletes would be free to express themselves at the Beijing Olympics but urged them to respect the Games. The Belgian told France 2 television: «Athletes will have the chance to express themselves freely in all public areas in China. We’re only asking them not to make political, religious or racist propaganda (within Olympic-designated areas).» Rogge assured competitors intent on making their point on China’s human rights record: «The right to express yourself is sacred… Express yourselves as you wish but respect the Games.» He said it was unfair to criticize the IOC over China’s human rights record. «Why reproach the IOC for something generations of heads of state and government haven’t achieved since the creation of popular China in 1949.» According to Rogge, the presence of a 25,000-strong battalion of international media to cover the Games is one of the greatest assets of the Olympics. «They (the journalists) will be speaking not only about the sport but also about the society.» The Chinese have come under the microscope recently because of the violence that broke out in Tibet’s capital Lhasa on March 14 following four days of peaceful protests against Chinese rule. Exiled Tibetan leaders say more than 150 people have died in the subsequent government crackdown, while China says Tibetan «rioters» have killed 18 civilians and two policemen. As a result, the global Olympic Torch relay has been beset by problems, with several of the legs being disrupted by protesters against China’s human rights record, not only over Tibet but also their continuing trade with Sudan.