Imposing neutrality by fiat requires a certain hubris. The International Olympic Committee demonstrated that it has that in abundant supply when it forbade activism by athletes at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, prohibiting “gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling.” The policy, announced last week, added precision to a longstanding — and controversial — rule in the Olympic Charter stating, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
The IOC’s guidelines were not only a response to a global zeitgeist of athletes’ political expression, but also a firm rebuke to last summer’s outburst of activism at the Pan American Games, where U.S. hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised her fist and fencer Race Imboden took a knee to raise awareness of racial inequality. In 2016, U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who will likely participate in this summer’s Olympics, took a knee in solidarity with NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in his fight against racialized oppression and police brutality.
The new guidelines’ core idea is that “sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference.” While political neutrality may appear laudable on the surface, it ripples with hypocrisy when it is mandated by the IOC. Under this policy, athlete activists are suspended between the past and the future while being denied their right to exist in the present. That reinforces the politics of the status quo, which benefits those in power.
The IOC’s brand of apoliticism is, in fact, deeply political — the IOC needs a walk-in closet for all of its political skeletons. It staged the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin with full awareness that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were gaining power and using the Games against Jewish people by instituting an “Aryans-only” policy within German sports organizations. It allowed an all-white apartheid South African team to compete until it grudgingly banned the country in the 1960s in the face of worldwide pressure. For two decades, the IOC’s president was Juan Antonio Samaranch, an unrepentant functionary for the Franco regime in Spain. The list goes on.
The new policy also clangs clumsily against one of the most iconic moments in Olympic history, when American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith thrust their black-gloved fists into the Mexico City sky at the 1968 Summer Games, while Australian Peter Norman stood in solidarity wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights button. Olympic officials ejected Carlos and Smith from the Olympic Village, and all three men paid a steep price for their activism on the medal stand.
Yet today, they are celebrated as heroes who stood up for what was right. The Olympic Channel feted Carlos and Smith as “legends” for their epic dissent, calling it “one of the most iconic moments in the history of modern Olympic Games.” Last fall, Carlos and Smith were inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame. Before that, they were honored by President Barack Obama in a ceremony at the White House. Yet the new policy is designed to suppress the next generation of courageous athletes who might follow their lead.
But the IOC’s duplicity has additional layers. Although the United Nations has granted the IOC permanent observer status, the new policy stands in sharp contrast to Article 19 of its Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The new IOC guidelines are the wordsmithed inverse of those freedoms.
The IOC’s selective ethics are also conspicuous when it comes to its relationship with China. In 2001, when Beijing was bidding on the 2008 Summer Olympics, Chinese bid committee officialsvowed that bringing the Games to China would improve the country’s human rights situation. Jacques Rogge, then the president of the IOC, agreed: “It is clear that the staging of the Olympic Games will do a lot for the improvement of human rights and social relations in China.”
Despite the rosy predictions, the 2008 Olympics marked a pivot point for intensified state repression. “The reality is that the Chinese government’s hosting of the Games has been a catalyst for abuses,” asserted Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch. But that didn’t stop the IOC from selecting Beijing once again to host the Olympics, this time for the 2022 Winter Games. Today, as the repression of ethnic Uighurs intensifies in Xinjiang province, the IOC sits idly by.
Neutrality can be a form of bias in favor of power. In fact, the new IOC policy banning athletes’ activism enables the repression of dissent with a little wink to Beijing. It states, “Any protest or demonstration outside Olympic venues must obviously comply with local legislation wherever local law forbids such actions.” In short, the IOC provides a generous carve-out for its authoritarian hosts, an alibi for subjugation.
The bottom line is that the IOC is not against politics; it is against a certain type of politics. Banning political protest is itself a blatant political act. And forbidding political dissent at the Olympics often means reinforcing white supremacy, because most recent protests by Olympic athletes were carried out either to raise awareness of racism and its ramifications — as Berry, Imboden and Rapinoe did — or by athletes of color who used the Olympics to talk back to power in their home countries, such as Damien Hooper, the Aboriginal boxer from Australia who, after wearing a shirt featuring the Aboriginal flag at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, was chastised for bringing politics to the Games.
Despite the IOC’s inspiring language placing “sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind,” the new policy bends the Olympics toward injustice.
- Jules Boykoff teaches political science at Pacific University in Oregon. He is the author of four books on politics and sports, most recently “NOlympians: Inside the Fight Against Capitalist Mega-Sports in Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Beyond” and "Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics"
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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