CHICAGO — U.S. Olympians say they're neither restricted nor coached by U.S. Olympic Committee officials when it comes to speaking about politically sensitive issues heading into the 2008 Beijing Games.

But when responding to questions about China's human-rights record, which has prompted protests at Olympic torch runs and calls for boycotts, U.S. athletes struggle to find the right words.

"They want us to speak our minds. If we have individual opinions, we should speak them and let them be out there," said Heather O'Reilly of the U.S. women's soccer team during Monday's opening day of the USOC Olympic Media Summit, as 110 Olympic athletes and hopefuls gathered for interviews with American and international journalists.

"We're in a tough spot. We're all socially aware individuals — we understand how people are using this platform (the Olympics) for a change in the world," she said, adding "if there needs to be change in the world, there needs to be more than just putting the torch in water."

Teammate Abby Wambach joined in: "Are we humans? Do we have conscientiousness in our minds and in our hearts? Yes!" she said, trying to verbalize the angst of an athlete who risks being publicly scrutinized for expressing any opinion.

"We all have them. It's a lot for one person or an entire team to take on ... to may or may not have a belief and be slaughtered for it."

Softball's Jessica Mendoza said "we can be great advocates for this awareness — the normal person might not be able to get as many ears as an athlete can."

But she was quick to point out the drive of Olympic dreams outweighs pursuing a public forum. "We have to fight our battles on the field," she said, as Team USA seeks to win its fourth consecutive gold. "When I step into that arena, I have nothing but that goal on my mind."

Rather, she looks forward to returning to the Olympic Village dining halls and repeating the experiences she enjoyed in Athens — "to talk with athletes from all over the world about what we can do in our own ways to make a difference."

Asked if he felt any responsibility or opportunity to speak out as one of the higher-profile athletes, multi-gold-medalist swimmer Michael Phelps — like a number of others — seemed to skirt the question.

"I think all the athletes are all very aware," he said, adding that to repeat a lifelong dream "to go to the Olympic Games and represent my country — that's what this year is really all about."

Shawn Johnson's response summarized similar expressions from her women's gymnastics teammates: "You really can't do very much — it's not in our power to change it, so you learn to live with it," she said.

Some, such as soccer's Kate Markgraf, expect the Games themselves to outshine the controversies.

"The one thing that can't be overshadowed is the Olympic spirit, the great stories coming out of the Olympics — the heart, the desire, the competitive spirit," she said. "It's going to be hard for those stories not to come out."

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