The Absurdity of Prohibiting Protest at the Olympics
The Games have always been political. That's a given. But is the IOC also trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist?
Last week, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued a press release addressing its stance on Rule 50—i.e. the section of the Olympic Charter which stipulates that, among other things, “no kind of demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues, or other areas.” Stating that the purpose of the rule was to protect the “neutrality of sport,” the IOC published a three-page document to help clarify how Rule 50 would be implemented and enforced at the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
In brief, Olympic athletes are prohibited from engaging in any acts of protest on the field of play, in the Olympic Village, or at any of the Olympic ceremonies. Athletes are allowed to “express their views” on social media, at press conferences, and in the mixed zone. The IOC notes that “expressing views is different from protests and demonstrations.” Examples of the latter include: “any political messaging” and “gestures of a political nature.”
How does the IOC justify its vehement policing of all things political? The official answer is that in a divided world, the Olympics are supposed to represent a kind of safe space (both literal and symbolic) from global conflict. Per the IOC, any athlete who uses the Olympic platform to broadcast a personal agenda is compromising the sanctity of the occasion and effectively ruining it for everyone else. In its press release, the world governing body engaged in a little preemptive activist shaming: “When an individual makes their grievances, however legitimate, more important than the feelings of their competitors and the competition itself, the unity and harmony as well as the celebration of sport and human accomplishment are diminished.”
Shockingly, not everyone has been willing to give the IOC the benefit of the doubt on this. Over the past week, the organization has been repeatedly taken to task for claiming that the Games are apolitical.
“Of course sport and politics are intertwined,” the Guardian’s Sean Ingle wrote on Monday, echoing a point George Orwell made more 70 years ago. “The Olympics, after all, is partly a giant willy-waving contest between nations,” Ingle added. Needless to say, the “willy-waving” is rarely confined to the field of play; it’s become routine for every Olympics to inspire studies about what a nation’s medal tally says about things like GDP and other metrics of national prosperity.
Earlier this week, Olympic bronze medalist John Carlos spoke to Dave Zirin of the Nation and made the point that forbidding political gestures was itself a political act. Carlos, of course, was involved in what has arguably become the most recognizable act of protest in the history of the Games when he raised his fist with Tommie Smith on the medal podium in Mexico City in 1968. “[The IOC is] way out of line with this,” Carlos said. “The silencing of people is political.”
The example of Carlos and Smith’s famous protest speaks to a hypocritical aspect of the IOC’s stance. As I wrote last year, the organization and its affiliated national committees are more than happy to co-opt the political elements of the Games if they can be used to burnish the Olympic brand. See: the US Olympic Committee’s induction of Carlos and Smith into its official Hall of Fame last November for “courageously standing up for racial injustice,” or IOC president Thomas Bach citing the 2018 Winter Games as the principal reason that tensions have cooled between North and South Korea.
Finally, and not to harp on about what should be blatantly obvious to anyone paying attention, casting the Olympics as a politically neutral event is to willfully ignore how much it costs to put on one of these two-week shindigs. The Games are the epitome of what anti-Olympics activist Jules Boykoff cynically refers to as “celebration capitalism,” i.e. a phenomenon where host cities take on enormous levels of debt from which private contractors (rather than the general public) often reap the benefits. There’s a reason, after all, that many cities are saying “no thanks” to the prospect of hosting the Olympics, and it isn’t that everyone hates race-walking. (As Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh put it when his city withdrew its bid for the 2024 Games, “I refuse to mortgage the future of the city away.”)
I wonder if there’s not a more fundamental flaw in the way the IOC is cleaving to Rule 50. At least from where I sit, it seems like the governing body is trying to address a problem that doesn’t really exist. “It is a fundamental principle that sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference,” the IOC notes in its athlete guidelines.
What constitutes “interference” here? Given the types of political protest we’ve seen from athletes in Olympiads past, it’s difficult to see how these “diminish the accomplishments” of others or degrade the competition. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about the John Carlos/Tommie Smith protest in ‘68 was that the other guy on the podium—i.e. Peter Norman, the silver medal winner from Australia—voluntarily took part in the protest by donning an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity.
To cite a more recent example, at the 2016 men’s marathon in Rio, Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms over his head just as he was securing a second-place finish. The gesture was meant as a sign of solidarity with the Oromo, his country’s largest ethnic group, who were being subjected to violent crackdowns from the (Tigray-dominated) Ethiopian government at the time. It’s hard to think of a more overtly political act and flouting of Rule 50, and yet the first and third place finishers in the race—namely Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge and the American Galen Rupp—didn’t seem to notice. (While we’re at it, when Rupp, who is Catholic, finished the race seconds after Lilesa, he gave himself the sign of the cross, but it’s doubtful that anyone interpreted this as religious propaganda.)
Will we see similar acts of protest this summer in Tokyo? The joke will be if the IOC’s stern warning ends up inadvertently inspiring more athletes to take a stand. Or a knee.