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By Steve Keating

(Reuters) – Boycotting an Olympics should be up to individual athletes not politicians, says U.S. Alpine skiing great Lindsey Vonn, as calls mount to move or reject the 2022 Beijing Winter Games over China’s human rights record.

A four-times Olympian, Vonn’s opinion on boycotts has not altered in retirement, believing the Games can be a catalyst for change and spotlighting issues like China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims which Washington has called genocide.

“If athletes want to boycott that’s their prerogative and their right,” Vonn told Reuters. “I think one of the great things about the Olympics is that it can shed a lot of light on really important topics, not just about sports.”

With the Feb. 4-20 Beijing Games just seven months away, rights groups have urged a boycott. Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of representatives, has pushed for a “diplomatic boycott” with global leaders snubbing the Olympics.

Vonn, winner of three Olympic medals including downhill gold at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, said she was against podium protests.

“Allowing the athletes to protest outside of the podium, I think is a great balance,” said Vonn.

“If you think about it you’re on the podium with two other people that have equally given their life to be in that position and you don’t want to take away from that, from their victory, and from their success.”

American Vonn, 36, said she worried about the pressure on some Olympic athletes whose mental health has been affected, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

From Michael Phelps to Naomi Osaka and Vonn herself, more-and-more athletes are detailing such struggles.

In Vonn’s case, her dog Lucy, who often accompanied her on the World Cup circuit, gave emotional support and comfort.

“I think that it was something that most people didn’t feel like they could talk about,” said Vonn.

She is helping launch a project backed by German company Allianz, in which skateboarders in Los Angeles who are going to the Tokyo Olympics will be given support dogs to relieve stress.

“I know from my own experience that I didn’t feel comfortable talking about it (mental health),” Vonn said.

“More people have come out in the past few years expressing what they were going through, especially Olympic athletes. Most would assume (they) never had any mental health issues.”

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Additional reporting by Iain Axon in London, Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)