Olympics chief: I respect Spielberg's boycott decision

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The leader of the International Olympic Committee has said he respects Steven Spielberg's decision to abort his involvement in this year's Games because of China's reluctance to urge Sudan to act over the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

Three days after Spielberg drew the eyes of the world to China's apparent indifference to the conflict by withdrawing as artistic adviser to the Olympics in Beijing, Jacques Rogge, the IOC president, said he had "a lot of respect" for the film director.

Asked yesterday about his response to Spielberg's move, Mr Rogge said: "I reacted by respecting his decision ... I have a lot of respect for Spielberg. I like his films. Here is a man who has had a remarkable career."

The comments came as the international row grew over whether China should face a boycott for its refusal to force its ally Sudan to act over the crisis in Darfur, a conflict described by the US as genocide and by Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, as "one of the great tragedies of our time".

China has close links with Sudan, selling weapons to its government and buying more than 60 per cent of its oil exports, while, critics say, providing cover for Khartoum at the UN Security Council.

About 200,000 people are believed to have died and 2.5 million have been driven from their homes by the conflict since it began in 2003. The Khartoum government and its Arab militia allies are widely blamed for massacres of Darfur's black African population.

On Thursday, The Independent published a letter sent by the world's Nobel laureates – led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu – to President Hu of China, and copied to Mr Rogge, urging action.

"We will continue to watch for concerted and consistent Chinese action to ensure rapid deployment of UN-AU [African Union] peacekeepers, progress in the peace talks, and an end to the use of rape as a weapon of war," the letter said.

But there is frustration at the lack of response from those in positions of influence, despite an international coalition of human rights activists urging corporate sponsors of the Beijing Olympics to call the Chinese government to account over the issue.

British ministers have failed to back a boycott and the US President, George Bush, has made it clear he will be attending the Games. In stark contrast to the comments made by Mr Rogge, Mr Bush said of Spielberg: "It's up to him. I am going to the Olympics. I view the Olympics as a sporting event."

Mr Bush added: "There are a lot of issues that I suspect people are going to opine about during the Olympics – the Dalai Lama crowd, you've got the global warming folks, you've got Darfur. I am not going to go and use the Olympics as an opportunity to express my opinions to the Chinese people in a public way, because I do it all the time with the President."

Spielberg spoke out after being urged for more than a year by the actress Mia Farrow and in the face of silence from President Hu, who failed to respond to letters expressing concerns over Sudan. The Chinese continue to insist that any boycott of the Olympics would be "wrong" and an attack on sport as opposed to Sudan.

In his statement, Spielberg said: "I find that my conscience will not allow me to continue business as usual. At this point, my time and energy must be spent not on Olympic ceremonies but on doing all I can to help bring an end to the unspeakable crimes against humanity that continue to be committed in Darfur."

Yesterday, Mr Rogge said that the director's move was "his decision". He added: "He certainly would have brought a lot to the opening ceremony in terms of creativity. [But] his absence will not harm the quality of the Games.

"The role of the IOC is to organise the Olympic Games. We are not a sports association nor a political organisation and neither an association with humanitarian goals. That does not mean that everyone of us within the Olympic movement does not have his own conscience, his own very strong beliefs."