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The Inherent Dilemma of Olympic Protest Rules

Can the IOC create an internationally applicable code of conduct for Olympic protest?

Feyisa Lilesa crosses his arms above his head at the 2016 Olympics as a protest against the Ethiopian government’s crackdown on political dissent. (Photo: Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty)
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Late last week, Sarah Hirshland, the CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, posted an open letter on her Twitter account. “We have made the decision,” Hirshland wrote, “that Team USA athletes will not be sanctioned for peacefully and respectfully demonstrating in support of racial and social justice for all human beings.” In making this announcement she effectively asserted that the governing body would no longer punish U.S. athletes for violating Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which forbids acts of demonstration as well as “political, religious, or racial propaganda,” at the Olympic Games. The USOPC’s decision was made in solidarity with the organization’s Council on Racial and Social Justice, which recently published a four-page document taking the International Olympic Committee to task for “silencing” athletes who wanted to use their platform for peaceful protest. “Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right,” the Council wrote.  

However, both Hirshland and the Council on Racial and Social Justice made sure to include the caveat that not all ideas should be freely expressed: “First and foremost, it is critical to state unequivocally that human rights are not political, and peaceful calls for equity and equality must not be confused with divisive demonstrations,” Hirshland wrote. 

Since it’s possible to establish a “political” angle on any topic, the question of what is or isn’t political tends to inspire torturous and cyclical debates. But it might be more interesting to ask how we are supposed to distinguish between peaceful protest and “divisive demonstrations.” As anyone who reads the news will be aware, not everyone seems to agree on where to draw the line here. Hirshland, for her part, sidesteps the issue in her tweet and doesn’t try to suggest what a divisive demonstration might look like. 

The Council on Racial and Social Justice, on the other hand, which framed its statement as a “list of recommendations” for the IOC, makes an effort to define its terms: “In the context of potential amendments to IOC Rule 50/IPC Section 2.2, it is important to recognize that this right comes with the responsibility to speak ethically,” the Council writes. “We do not consider hate speech, racist propaganda, and discriminatory remarks that are aimed at eliminating the rights and dignity of historically marginalized and minoritized populations as meeting the requirements for ethical speech.” 

The statement goes on to recommend that the IOC draw a clear line between protests for human rights and acts of discrimination against marginalized groups. It proposes that the latter be categorized as “divisive disruptions” and that an independent regulatory body be in charge of reviewing prospective instances and determining the consequences for violators. 

Of course, that brings up the matter of who gets to arbitrate what constitutes “ethical speech,” or “discriminatory remarks aimed at historically marginalized populations”—a potentially fraught issue when it comes to establishing a code of conduct for a competition that includes virtually every nation in the world. (According to the IOC, the 2016 Olympics hosted 207 National Olympic Committees.) Should the Israeli hardliner who, in a medal stand gesture, publicly advocates for settlements on the West Bank be reprimanded? What about a Chinese athlete who is against the Hong Kong protest movement? If the answer to either of these questions is “yes,” then we’d find ourselves in a situation where a national Olympic committee might be expected to punish an athlete for echoing the official position of that country’s ruling party. I don’t really see that happening. 

National politics aside, there’s the contentious debate about trans athletes and Olympic sport. Surely this demographic qualifies as a historically marginalized population. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be questions about how to balance efforts at trans inclusion with competitive fairness. Would a cisgender athlete who has qualms about the rules for trans athlete inclusion—and openly says so—be guilty of discrimination?

Hazard did not respond to a request for comment with regard to some of these questions when I reached out to her last week. I did however receive a response from Tianna Bartoletta, an American sprinter, long jumper, and multiple Olympic gold medalist who sits on the Council’s Steering Committee for Racism and Acts of Discrimination. In an email, Bartoletta expressed frustration that the IOC seemed to be insisting that all demonstrations be treated equally. (The IOC is expected to announce any prospective updates to Rule 50 early next year.) “Time after time they respond to our request with the false equivalency that a raised fist is equal to a Nazi salute,” Bartoletta said. “That demanding equality for one people is equal to hate speech.”

However, the implementation of an updated Rule 50 would also have to apply to situations that don’t offer such a neatly bifurcated moral choice. Which makes me wonder if the IOC would be better off abolishing the “no political propaganda” aspect of Rule 50 altogether, while potentially implementing a “no hate speech” clause along the lines of what is suggested by the Council on Racial and Social Justice. (The definition of “hate speech” may be disputed as well, but at least it’s more of an internationally established concept than “discriminatory remarks towards marginalized people.”) In the long run, this might end up being more feasible for the IOC than clinging to some maximalist and—let’s face it—illusory dictate of total neutrality. I’m not convinced that loosening the rules in this way would turn the Games into an ideology-riddled spectacle to the detriment of the athletes.

When I want to give the IOC the benefit of the doubt—not my default position—I tell myself that what they are really afraid of isn’t so much a repeat of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists at the ’68 Games, but a contemporary version of the Munich Massacre of ‘72, when Palestinian militants murdered Israeli athletes and coaches in the Olympic Village. In this view, maintaining the “neutrality of sport,” that sacred tenet of the Olympic Charter, is a bulwark against international conflict. (It’s worked really well so far.) But prospective terrorists will obviously not be deterred by dubious declarations of an Olympic truce. By the same token, I don’t think anyone who is desperate to do a Nazi salute on the Olympic podium would really care about whether or not such a gesture is officially permitted.  

Then again, you don’t need to be the world’s biggest cynic to know that the reason that the IOC is so adamant about political neutrality isn’t because it believes it can help achieve world peace through sport, but because it wants to protect its product by minimizing controversy. Until now, mandating that the Olympics remain a protest-free zone has been the most effective way to do this. Whether the USOPC has the leverage to force a change remains to be seen. 

Filed To: AthletesOlympicsPoliticsMedia
Lead Photo: Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty