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IOC speaks out on Beijing Olympics controversy

The countdown to the Beijing Olympics has begun, and so have protests against the event, over China's record on human rights.

Activists gathered in Athens over the weekend, shouting "Boycott Beijing 2022," a day before the lighting of the Olympic flame.

Beijing is set to become the first city to host both a Summer and Winter Games after hosting the Olympics in 2008.

But human rights groups say no improvements have been made over the past 14 years.

The controversy has prompted the International Olympic Committee to defend the upcoming Games.

Spokesperson Juan Antonio Samaranch said Sunday the Olympics are about uniting young people from around the world.

"Everybody has the right, is entitled to their ideas, their positions and their principles. What I have to say is we cannot comment on those protests. There were some protests today in Athens. We cannot comment on those things. We are here in ancient Olympia for a very important thing which is getting everybody together from all parts of the world."

Rights groups and some American lawmakers have called on the IOC to relocate the event unless China ends what the U.S. deems to be genocide of Uyghur Muslims.

Chinese authorities have been accused of facilitating forced labour by detaining around a million Uyghurs and other primarily Muslim minorities in camps.

China denies wrongdoing, calling the camps vocational training centres aimed at combatting extremism.

Beijing is also contending with the threat of the global health crisis and has banned international visitors.

But unlike the Tokyo Games earlier this year, local fans will be allowed to attend Olympic events.

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