Abolish Rule 50.2 (Part 1 of the the Rule 50 series on http://www.derballluegtnicht.com)
In 2019, athlete protests brought attention to another polarizing issue about the Olympic Charter. Protests such as those by U.S. athletes Race Imboden and Gwen Berry, who showed solidarity with Colin Kaepernick’s and John Carlos/Tommie Smith’s political protests against racism and police violence at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, illustrate that the Olympic movement is internally divided on how to deal with political statements and actions.
The two athletes’ protests against racism and demands for social justice were timely, as there was a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas during the Pan Am Championships that killed twenty-three people, mostly Latinos.
Moreover, the two were protesting at a time when the U.S. was experiencing a rise in racist and xenophobic attacks and unchecked rhetoric that reached the highest levels of institutional power, the president of the United States. Following their protests, both athletes faced significant criticism from their governing body (see Draves, 2021). Athletically, they were placed on probation for one year after the competitions, a unique occurrence.
What was the background? Rule 50.2 prohibits athletes* from making political statements or protesting during the Olympics. The rule reads, „No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas“ (IOC, 2019). The rule aims to keep politics out of the Olympics and make it a purely sporting event, but this has never succeeded so far.
Should political protest remain banned at the Olympic Games? Does it make sense from the point of view of sports organizations to curtail fundamental rights of athletes for a certain period of time? Can freedom of expression, a fundamental right in democracies, be limited just because the Olympic Games and the IOC are historically considered apolitical by their specifications and traditions?
In his 2020 New Year’s address, IOC President Bach indicated that the IOC would not tolerate political expression and action at the Tokyo Olympics. He justified the requirement with the protection of the Olympic Games and the political neutrality of the Olympic idea (see Bach, 2020). However, these restrictions only apply to athletes and not to host nations (see below). A contradiction! In the summer of 2020 there were extensive Black Lives Matter protests. The reason was the killing of black US citizens by police officers as well as police violence and racism. Many athletes around the world participated in these protests and brought the issue of freedom of expression into focus.
Separating sport and politics, as formulated by the Charter and Bach, was and is an utopian idea of the IOC and has little to do with reality. Historical and current examples prove this. Even a provision like Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter will not fundamentally change this.
Bach’s clear words at the beginning of 2020 were due to the increasing political actions of athletes at international competitions. Mature and politically aware athletes like Race Imboden, Gwen Berry, Megan Rapinoe or Max Hartung are causing headaches for the officials at the International Olympic Comitteee (in view of the Games in Tokyo 2021 and Beijing 2022). Bach criticizes the growing politicization of the Olympic Games by athletes. He sees in these actions the intention to abuse the Games for political interests and for deliberate divisions. Internally, it is perhaps also the fear of the complete demythicization of an apolitical sport and ultimately a possible replacement of the autonomy of sport.
As a consequence of Bach’s statements, the IOC published a list of rules and guidelines in early 2020, further developed by the IOC Athletes Commission, which is close to the executive and not independent, but which once again emphasized the importance of Rule 50.2 of the Olympic Charter and the political neutrality of the IOC. The main statement of the new guidelines was „sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference.“ (IOC Athletes‘ Commission, 2020).
The fact that this statement was co-authored by the IOC Athletes‘ Commission, which is very close to the IOC Executive Board, shows the insufficient independence of the Commission from the world governing body (cf. IOC Executive Board and Athletes‘ Commission, 2020). Many athletes* worldwide cannot agree with the letter of the IOC Athletes‘ Commissions because it comprehensively restricts basic human rights. The stipulations prohibit any political action such as hand gestures, symbols or protesting (e.g. kneeling) on the podium, as well as expressions during the Olympic Games. The ban applies to all Olympic venues, including the playing field, Olympic village and Olympic ceremony sites. Only during press conferences, interviews, in the mixed zones, and on digital platforms are athletes* allowed to freely express their opinions (see IOC, 2020).
What is shocking is not that the IOC, together with its Athletes‘ Commission, continues to hide behind the cloak of political neutrality and wants to significantly restrict athletes‘ rights of free expression, but that the IOC Athletes‘ Commission explicitly emphasized in the 2020 statement that any protest outside the official venues must be compatible with local laws. If authoritarian states like Russia or China, for example, decide before the Games to make protests in favor of LGBTQ rights punishable by law, athletes* can expect legal challenges in the host country. The IOC and Athletes‘ Commission provide local organizers with a free pass to prosecute protests by elite athletes outside of competition, ensuring the subjugation of all athletes. Because of this legal situation, few will dare to make political statements. The status quo is preserved through these regulations (see IOC Athletes‘ Commission, 2020).
Following these recommendations, the IOC Athletes‘ Commission was asked to conduct further consultations on the issue of expressing opinions at the Olympic Games through its own athlete survey.
The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) also established a panel of experts to address the fundamental rights of athletes following the Black Lives Matter protests in their own country. Based on the findings the USOPC notified Olympic team members in December 2020 that they would be allowed to express their views without fear of a penalty from the U.S. Olympic Committee (that could disqualify them from participating in international events or harm them financially). The USOPC, as the main national governing body, ruled that it was not appropriate to sanction athletes for expressing their views or for peaceful protests at Olympic events. On the one hand the decision on the part of the USOPC represents an implicit admission that advocacy for human rights and social justice is political and will be difficult to sanction from a moral standpoint in the future (see Azzi, 2020). The New Zealand Olympic Committee has expressed similar sentiments following statements by their athlete commissions, endorsing the USOPC’s position (cf. Pavitt, 2021). Moreover some international federation heads including the president of the World Athletics Federation Sebastian Coe shared this view, also believing that athletes* should have the right to protest for social justice during the Games (cf. Ostlere, 2020). It raises the question of how national NOCs will henceforth deal with such protests, such as at World Championships and Olympics, and the stricter regulations on the part of the IOC.
The IOC, surprised by the decision of the USOPC, still does not want to know about this enlightened thinking: No athlete protests in important and high-profile locations at the Olympics! Just a few months later, in the spring of 2021, the IOC Athletes Commission presented the results of its own athlete survey, a consultation process involving more than 3,500 athletes from 185 National Olympic Committees and all 41 Olympic sports (see IOC Athletes Commission, 2021).
The resulting recommendations of the IOC Athletes‘ Commission further dictate when, where and what athletes are allowed to say. This is the opposite of freedom of expression and has caused discussion – especially among top athletes. Independent athlete representatives such as Global Athlete, Athleten Deutschland (Athletes Germany) or The Athletics Association distanced themselves from the statements of the survey. According to the results of the survey, 70 percent of the 3,547 respondents said that the stadium and official ceremonies were not an appropriate place to demonstrate or protest. More than two-thirds – 67 percent – held the same view when it came to the podium. As expected, the IOC Athletes‘ Commission formally recommended maintaining the ban on protests on the podium, field and ceremonies at the Olympics. While much of the outcome was expected, the IOC Athletes‘ Commission called for further clarity on the sanctions that could be imposed on athletes who protest in restricted areas at future Olympics. It recommended that each case be considered individually (see IOC Athletes Commission, 2021). Yet it was the Commission itself that drafted the Rule 50 guidelines in January 2020 (see above) and threatened athletes* with disciplinary action. It remains unclear how the Tokyo 2021 Games will proceed.
The survey with its research methodology is questionable, does not appear independent, partially influencing. It gives the impression that leading questions were asked in order to be able to serve a certain narrative afterwards. It is particularly noteworthy that the majority of the athletes interviewed come from China, which has to live under considerable restrictions with regard to human rights. In their everyday lives they have to deal not only with top-level sports but also political monopolies. It seems absurd to ask athletes from democracies and dictatorship-like countries (who have to watch what they say) about human rights and freedom of expression. The questioning carried out by the IOC Athletes Commission is a simple way of empowering majorities and keeping minorities out of possible change.
Athletes from autocratic systems are expected to reject political protest at the Olympic Games, since the power apparatuses expect answers from them that conform to the system. In case of deviating statements they have to reckon with reprisals by the political system.
Is this survey „Olympic-washing“? It wants to create an artificial majority opinion without taking into account the voices of marginalized athletes.
The IOC claims that the survey is representative, although this is doubtful based on the known data. Does the IOC really believe that athletes answer freely in such a survey, e.g. in a one-party country?
German athletes were reluctant to participate in the survey. Is it because athletes from Bach’s home country are critical of the IOC? In terms of content, there are deep rifts between the IOC President and the athletes of his country of origin, especially with regard to top-level sports, political and economic participation, human rights, athletes‘ rights and the alleged political neutrality of the global governing body.
Next part coming up soon!