PtG Comment 09.11.2020

To stand up for Olympic values it may be necessary to kneel as well

OPINION: Lawyer Sylvia Schenk adds her voice to the many calls on the IOC to clarify what it counts as a political statement for athletes, and to resolve its own dilemma in Belarus.

In terms of age, we are only one and a half years apart, but in terms of the Olympics I arrived four years earlier - and that means we are ages apart.

When IOC President Thomas Bach writes in an essay how he “could feel the Olympic spirit come alive” the moment he moved into the Olympic village in Montreal 1976, thus opening “his eyes to the unifying power of sport," then my departure from the Olympic Village at the end of the Munich Summer Games 1972 still stands vividly before my eyes: Traumatised by the murder of 11 Israeli Olympic participants and a German police officer. The vulnerability of the Games, unforgivably underestimated by the German authorities, had been brutally exposed. The Olympic spirit united us in grief.

Since then I have known: The Olympics must be able to defend itself if it wants to fulfill its mission and has to take care not to be abused.

For Bach, the Olympic competitions can be "a model for a world in which everyone follows the same rules". But corruption, scandals of abuse as well as systematic doping - orchestrated by officials in several sports associations and countries - undermine this claim.

The rules of sport may be the same for everyone, but which rules apply beyond the competition, and more importantly: Who benefits from these rules and who is harmed or at a disadvantage?

Silence is also a political statement

Bach postulates: "The Olympic Games are not about politics.” But the political neutrality Bach invokes must not lead to self-castration. To refer to the adage that "neither the awarding of the Games nor participation in them ... represents a political judgement about the host country" opens the door to misuse.

For silence can also be an eminently political statement as witnessed by the Olympic Games in Berlin 1936. The IOC kept silent on the specifics of the Nazi Games, so that the victory of the Afro-American Jesse Owens in the men's 100m final race turned into an - unplanned - political demonstration.

32 years later, in Mexico City 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, first and third in the 200m final, protested with a fist in a black glove at the award ceremony against the racism that they too experienced in their American homeland.

The protest was against the rules and, as IOC consultant Michael Vesper succinctly states in the German newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine, they "have been punished for it.” Not a word about the fact that 50 years later the action and its punishment are assessed quite differently.

Crucial that the IOC sets clear boundaries

The IOC's current offensive for political neutrality and compliance with rules is directed against athletes who want to actively fight for the respect for fundamental Olympic values.

At issue is Rule 50(2) of the Olympic Charter: "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.“

Of course, all sorts of horror scenarios can be conjured up: an award ceremony where the winner demonstrates for liberal abortion rules, the second defends the tightened Polish law on the same issue, and the third holds up a picture of an embryo. Who wants that?

What is crucial is the demarcation of boundaries: What does "demonstration" or "propaganda" mean? Is active commitment to the Olympic values an expression of a personal opinion? In view of the state of the world, isn't such a commitment what is needed right now to assert the Olympic spirit?

The dilemma between a gesture against racism and the dignity of an award ceremony cannot be solved by referring to the ban on "racist propaganda".

How the dilemma could be resolved is shown by the demand of the independent athletes organisation, Athletes Germany e.V., to make the "commitment for democratic basic values or the realisation of human and basic rights" - which ultimately means: for the Olympic values - possible through "detailed rules and clear agreements". But the IOC has yet to react to this demand.

FIFA is much more flexible in this respect: at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, it classified women's protest against the stadium ban for female spectators in Iran as a "social concern". This legitimised the banners.

Football also reacted pragmatically to the BlackLivesMatter movement: although the use of the pitch for "non-sporting rallies" violates the principles of football, anti-discrimination and anti-racism are fundamental principles of football, which is why there are no penalties when footballers kneel down.

The IOC should face up to its own problem in Belarus

First of all, the IOC should face up to its own dilemma and clarify it as quickly as possible: the Belarusian dictator Lukashenko, who - what even the IOC cannot deny - is engaged in massive repression against his own population, including athletes, is also president of the National Olympic Committee (NOC).

Political neutrality becomes a farce as long as politics and Olympic sports are so intertwined, but the IOC makes a strict distinction between the role of head of government and that of NOC president. Can the NOC's silence in Belarus regarding repression, especially against athletes, seriously be interpreted as political neutrality and thus approved?

It is high time to work with athletes to find a way to convincingly combine the commitment to Olympic values with political neutrality in Tokyo 2020 and - probably even more explosive for the IOC - Beijing 2022.

According to Thomas Bach it is worth "fighting day after day to ensure that the Olympic Games can unfold this magic and unite the whole world in peace.”

This fight requires to stand up for the Olympic values - and if necessary -  to kneel as well.

This article was first published in the German newspaper, Frankfurter Zeitung, on 31 October 2020

Related articles

Sebastian Coe greets winner
PtG Article 14.05.2024
Money for medals divides the Olympic movement
Football girl with rainbow armband
PtG Comment 26.03.2024
Practical suggestions on how sports federations can be fair to transgender athletes
Whitney Bragnolo at Play the Game conference
PtG Article 23.02.2024
Sports federations urged to do more to safeguard athletes
Kristin Kloster
PtG Article 16.02.2024
IOC member: No Taliban flag at the Olympics in Paris
Panel on anti-doping
PtG Article 16.02.2024
CEO of USADA: "There is a lot we could do to ease the burden on the athletes"
Khalida Popal
PtG Article 05.02.2024
Pay gaps, representation, or even being allowed to play - the struggle for women in football is far from over
Zeinab Rezaie from Afghanistan
PtG Article 07.11.2023
The IOC has turned a blind eye to Taliban violations of the Olympic Charter for more than two years
Panel debate at SAPIS conference
PtG Article 04.10.2023
Conference showcased many examples of how athletes organise to protect and further their own interests
Runners hugging
PtG Article 20.09.2023
New SAPIS report highlights that many athletes still lack influence and points to ways forward for better athlete representation
Spanish women futsal players
PtG Article 28.08.2023
Pioneers share success stories about athlete influence at SAPIS conference
Tennis player
PtG Article 13.07.2023
Book 28 September and contribute to strengthening athlete power in sport
PtG Article 19.06.2023
SAPIS project launches good practice guide to strengthen athletes’ power in sport
PtG Comment 27.03.2023
Coe and Bach: United in history, divided by history
Ivo Ferriani and Thomas Bach
PtG Article 18.11.2022
World sports federations may give up their own independent platform
Mehboba Ahdyar
PtG Article 20.09.2022
New IOC human rights strategy brought to the test in negotiations with the Taliban regime
Canadas ungdomslandshold i ishockey
PtG Article 29.08.2022
Sexual abuse in sport: Canada could be a world leader in developing solutions
Friba Rezayee holder oplæg
PtG Article 30.06.2022
Afghanistan’s first female Olympian: IOC is funding the Taliban-controlled NOC in Kabul
Panel at conference
PtG Article 29.06.2022
Reports of abuse of athletes continue to emerge across the globe
Peter Donnelly
PtG Article 28.06.2022
Peter Donnelly: Children’s elite training meets the definition of child labour
Panel at Play the Game 2022.
PtG Article 27.06.2022
Russian sanctions unlikely to herald a new era of accountability
Photo: GettyImages/Matt Roberts.
PtG Article 10.06.2022
New book presents urgent call to listen to athletes in modern pentathlon
Stanislav Pozdnyakov
PtG Article 05.04.2022
Most Olympic federations suspend Russian athletes, but officials go free
Thomas Bach and Vladimir Putin
PtG Comment 02.03.2022
The coalition of Olympic perpetrators
Kamilia Valieva
PtG Comment 22.02.2022
Child athletes are too valuable for the Olympic system to set age limits
Beijing 2022 opening ceremony
PtG Comment 08.02.2022
A modest but confident China on display at the 2022 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya
PtG Article 30.11.2021
A vote of no confidence in the Court of Arbitration for Sport
Uyghurs demonstrate in Washington
PtG Article 14.10.2021
Beijing 2022: Olympic boycott battle over China’s ‘Genocide Games’
Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah
PtG Comment 06.10.2021
One coup too many: Olympic powerbroker sentenced to prison
PtG Article 28.09.2021
First output ready from project to strengthen athlete power in sport
Danish national football team
PtG Comment 22.04.2021
Athletes knock the legs from under global sports governance
Thomas Bach - photo by milos bicanski
PtG Comment 10.03.2021
The playbook that keeps Thomas Bach in power at the IOC
Alexander Lukashenko
PtG Comment 15.12.2020
Olympic finger-wagging at Europe’s last dictator
The Olympian basketball player Yelena Leuchanka
PtG Article 24.11.2020
Athlete activism is getting a female face
Tamas Ajan
PtG Article 12.11.2020
FBI and Swiss police dig into weightlifting scandal, while IOC is undecided
Protests in Belarus
PtG Article 23.10.2020
Belarusian athletes take lead in battle for democracy
Nikki Dryden
PtG Comment 21.08.2020
Athletes should not be gagged in exchange for Olympic dream
Colin Kaepernick
PtG Comment 11.08.2020
Athletes’ gestures are protected by international human rights law
Megan Rapinoe
PtG Comment 23.06.2020
Making a case for athlete advocacy: Humanitarians, Olympism and good governance
Naoko Imoto received the Olympic torch
PtG Comment 11.05.2020
A leaked list discloses how much cash the IOC paid for the 2016 Olympics in Rio
Alisher Usmanov and Thomas Bach
PtG Article 03.04.2020
How federations share the revenues from the Olympic Games