Athletes who display Tibetan flags at Olympic venues — including in their own rooms — could be expelled from this summer’s Games in Beijing under anti-propaganda rules.

Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, said that competitors were free to express their political views but faced sanctions if they indulged in propaganda.

He accompanied those comments with an admission that the Games were in “crisis” after pro-Tibet protests engulfed the Olympic torch relay.

Mr Rogge’s call for Beijing to abide by its promise to address human rights was given short shrift by Beijing, which bluntly told him to keep politics out of the Games.

The question of what will constitute propaganda when the Games are on in August and what will be considered opinion under IOC rules is one vexing many in the Olympic movement. The Olympic Charter bans any kind of “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” in any Olympic venue or area.

This includes the opening and closing ceremonies, the medal podiums and the Athletes’ Village.

Addressing concerns about free speech, Mr Rogge described the scenario of a Spanish athlete doing a lap of honour in the Olympic stadium with Spain’s national flag and his provincial flag as “perfectly legitimate”.

He said: “We have had many examples of mixed flags where the athlete is proud of that. Is there a will to demonstrate propaganda or is it a desire to demonstrate joy in his victory?”

The IOC did not specify whether a Chinese athlete or a foreign competitor of Tibetan origin flying the Tibetan flag would be regarded as patriotic or propagandist. A spokeswoman said that there had been no discussion internally or with the Chinese authorities about use of the Tibetan national flag. Asked whether athletes would be allowed to hang the flag in their rooms, she said: “The village is an Olympic venue so it falls under the same rules and regulations of any venue which would mean that anything in there would be judged on whether it was a provocative propaganda initiative.”

The fact that the IOC has still not qualified the exact interpretation of “propaganda” means that some athletes remain confused about what they can say during the 16-day event without being sent home or stripped of a medal.

Unfurling Free Tibet banners or wearing Save Darfur T-shirts at Olympic venues are acts likely to be regarded as a breach of the charter, which was introduced after the American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Power salute on the podium at the 1968 Games in Mexico City. But there are still many grey areas and concerns among human rights campaigners that athletes’ right to free speech will be curtailed to avoid embarrassing their Chinese hosts.

At the Sydney Games in 2000 Olympic chiefs allowed Cathy Freeman to use the Aboriginal flag to highlight the plight of the Stolen Generation after she won a gold medal in the 400 metres.

British athletes — originally told that they could not comment on “politically sensitive issues” before the edict was hastily retracted by British Olympic chiefs accused of gagging free speech — have asked for further clarification.

The British Athletes Commission is seeking a tighter definition of propaganda under the charter. They would also like more guidance on the writing of personal blogs during the Games.

“There is a difference between propaganda and opinion and I would expect most of our athletes to know it. Wearing a Free Tibet T-shirt is going to be seen as propaganda. But if athletes are asked a direct question, there should be no problem in them answering it,” said Pete Gardner, the BAC’s chief executive. “We want the IOC to clarify that.”

Most athletes will have no interest in anything other than their sporting performance but some want to be free to make political statements.

A group of French athletes, led by the pole-vaulter Romain Mesnil, has asked the IOC to let them wear a badge calling “For a Better World”. He said: “As athletes, we have to display Olympic values and human values. We don’t want to be mere pawns.”

Mr Rogge will write to the 205 national Olympic committees with guidelines to “prevent further politicisation” of the Games.

“Freedom of expression is absolutely a human right but there are small limitations. We are a movement of 205 nations, many of whom are in conflict, and the Games are not the place to take political or religious stances,” he said.

“If athletes genuinely want to express their opinion, that’s fine. The IOC will examine each case on its own merits and will do it with a lot of common sense.” Claudia Bokel, a German former Olympic fencer, said: “It is very important that athletes can prepare quietly and peacefully for the Games. But they are also concerned about what is going on in Tibet and they want to comply with the Olympic Charter.”

Pro-Tibet demonstrations have overshadowed the Olympic torch’s global journey but the IOC said that the tour would continue as planned.

Mr Rogge said yesterday that the torch relay’s progress would continue as planned. “There is no scenario of either interrupting or bringing [it] back directly to Beijing,” he said. A review of future torch relays will be made in September.

Mr Rogge defended the decision to award the Games to Beijing on a day of testy exchanges with the Chinese over human rights that prompted Gerhard Heiburg, Norway’s IOC member, to say that it was proving “more difficult than we originally thought”.

Mr Rogge said: “It is very easy with hindsight to criticise the decision. It’s easy to say now that this was not a wise and a sound decision. “Without any doubt, the bid of Beijing was the best. It offered something that no other country could: bringing sport and Olympism to one fifth of mankind. That was the reasoning behind awarding the Games to Beijing.”

But, in a nod to criticisms that China had failed to live up to promises made at the time of the bid, Mr Rogge called for the country’s leaders to respect their “moral engagement” to improve human rights. “A number of important commitments have been made. Nothing is ever perfect and there is definitely room for improvement,” he said.

In a terse response, China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman said that the IOC’s own charter called for “irrelevant political factors” to be kept separate from the Games.

Using the Games to make a point

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists in the 200 metres, gave the Black Power salute during the American National Anthem in Mexico, 1968, to demonstrate against racial discrimination in their home country. They were expelled from the Games

The silver medallist in the 200 metres, Peter Norman of Australia, who was white, wore an “Olympic Project for Human Rights” badge in support of Smith and Carlos’s protest. When he died, in 2006, Smith and Carlos were his lead pallbearers

Irish athletes boycotted the 1908 Olympic Games in London in protest against Britain’s refusal to give Ireland its independence. The American team also refused to dip its flag to Edward VII during the opening ceremony

In 1932 Italian gold medallist Luigi Beccali gave a fascist salute on the podium at the Los Angeles Games

The Nazis’ appropriation of the 1936 Berlin Games for the purposes of propaganda included the introduction of a grand torch relay to the Games – the very same that is causing trouble today. Boycott efforts by Britain and the US were short-lived, but many Jewish athletes refused to participate

At the Munich Games of 1972, gunmen from the Palestinian Black September group broke into the compound occupied by Israeli athletes and killed 11 of them

In 1980 62 countries – the biggest number in history – boycotted the Moscow Games in protest against the intervention of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan

An Eastern bloc boycott was organised in retaliation at the next games in Los Angeles

Two-time world judo champion Arash Miresmaeili was eliminated from the 2004 Olympics, officially after failing weight criteria. It seems more likely his exit was because he was drawn against an Israeli. Iran’s National Olympic Committee later said it was “general policy” for Iranian athletes to avoid competing against Israelies