Opinionista Craig Ray 30 July 2021

Olympic Games underline that politics is sport and sport is politics

Pol­i­tics and sport are cu­ri­ous bed­fel­lows but there is no escap­ing the fact that they are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked. Yet the Inter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee, which is iron­i­cally a hugely po­lit­i­cal en­tity mas­querad­ing as a sports organisation, does its best to sep­a­rate pol­i­tics and sport.

Craig Ray

Craig Ray is the Daily Maverick sports editor.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

In an age of so­cial me­dia and easy dis­sem­i­na­tion of in­for­ma­tion and mes­sages, both real and fake, the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee (IOC) re­mains mired in the past.

Ear­lier this month the breath­tak­ingly ar­ro­gant or­gan­i­sa­tion that “owns” the Olympics amended Clause 50 of its char­ter to al­low ath­letes more free­dom to ex­press their po­lit­i­cal and other views. As if they didn’t have the right to do that any­way.

Pre­vi­ously the clause stated: “No kind of demon­stra­tion or po­lit­i­cal, re­li­gious or racial pro­pa­ganda is per­mit­ted in any Olympic sites, venues or other ar­eas.”

The new guide­lines al­low ath­letes to ex­press their views but only on cer­tain plat­forms at cer­tain times. One of the times that is def­i­nitely off lim­its is on the podium, dur­ing a medal cer­e­mony. An­other is dur­ing the open­ing and clos­ing cer­e­monies. If those rules are breached the IOC has a lengthy list of sanc­tions it can im­pose on ath­letes, which in­cludes ejec­tion from the Olympic Games.

Un­der the new “re­laxed” reg­u­la­tions, ath­letes are “al­lowed” to ex­press an opin­ion on their own so­cial me­dia, in the mixed zone talk­ing to me­dia, at press con­fer­ences and in other in­ter­views. Ba­si­cally, in ar­eas with less eyes on them and in places that don’t pub­licly em­bar­rass the IOC.

But let’s not start ap­plaud­ing the IOC for their pro­gres­sive new stance on free­dom of ex­pres­sion, be­cause the amend­ments to the char­ter only came about un­der duress. For years ath­letes lob­bied against the IOC’s restrictions be­fore the suits at the plush Lau­sanne head­quar­ters threw out a bone, mainly for com­mer­cial and im­age rea­sons.

The IOC spent lots of time and money pay­ing consultants and con­duct­ing sur­veys over an is­sue that is re­ally very ba­sic – al­low­ing peo­ple free­dom of ex­pres­sion. They made great fan­fare over the amend­ments and there were many caveats in the fine print.

Thank­fully, ath­letes are not so quick to roll over and be happy with the grubby morsel. They want all restrictions on free­dom of ex­pres­sion elim­i­nated from the char­ter.

There are some vig­i­lant groups con­stantly nip­ping at the IOC’s heels over this is­sue. One of them is the Euro­pean Elite Ath­letes’ As­so­ci­a­tion, which re­leased a strong state­ment shortly af­ter the orig­i­nal amend­ments were pub­lished on 2 July.

“The IOC’s ap­proach to free­dom of speech and ex­pres­sion con­sists of an at­tempt to re­strict, re­de­fine and con­trol the way that the ath­letes ex­er­cise their fun­da­men­tal hu­man right,” the state­ment read.

“Threat­en­ing to sanc­tion ath­letes who peacefully protest on is­sues such as racism is not only in­con­sis­tent with hu­man rights but also goes against the val­ues that the IOC claims to sup­port.”

Of course, free­dom of ex­pres­sion is a two-way street and if ath­letes want all restrictions elim­i­nated then they face the prospect of be­ing up­set by ges­tures and mes­sages friends and com­peti­tors might send out.

If full free­dom of ex­pres­sion is al­lowed (and it should be) then it stands to rea­son that the mes­sages ath­letes is­sue will not be con­sis­tent. And they might be un­com­fort­able.

But isn’t that the point of po­lit­i­cal and so­cial protest – to chal­lenge a sys­tem and ques­tion author­ity and ide­ol­ogy? It is of­ten un­com­fort­able be­cause it holds up a mir­ror to in­jus­tice and the sta­tus quo. Po­lit­i­cal state­ments and ges­tures in sports are­nas have al­ways di­vided opin­ion – you only have to look at the Black Lives Mat­ter (BLM) move­ment as an ex­am­ple.

Noth­ing I can think of in a sport­ing con­text has di­vided opin­ion as much as the sim­ple ges­ture of ath­letes tak­ing a knee to call for an end to all forms of dis­crim­i­na­tion, po­lice bru­tal­ity and racially mo­ti­vated vi­o­lence against black peo­ple.

Yet BLM is such a hot potato that many sport­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions want noth­ing to do with it, in­clud­ing the IOC. Dur­ing the week, none of the of­fi­cial IOC me­dia chan­nels showed the Great Bri­tain foot­ball women’s team tak­ing the knee be­fore their game against Chile.

The Guardian re­ported that the IOC is­sued an of­fi­cial de­cree to its em­ploy­ees, in­struct­ing that no BLM ges­tures could be shown. In the wake of The Guardian’s story, the IOC and Tokyo Or­gan­is­ing Com­mit­tee did an about-turn.

Many be­lieve that sport and pol­i­tics should not mix, but when have they not? Sport, par­tic­u­larly at in­ter­na­tional level, is an ex­ten­sion of ide­ol­ogy (think of apartheid South Africa or Nazi Ger­many) or mil­i­tary power (the Soviet Union and the US dur­ing the Cold War).

The re­al­ity is that sport, pol­i­tics, hu­man rights and so­cial jus­tice have al­ways been en­twined, from an­cient Greece through to mod­ern Ja­pan.

Tom­mie Smith is hardly re­mem­bered as a man who ran the 200m in a blis­ter­ing 19.83 sec­onds 53 years ago, but he is re­mem­bered for rais­ing a gloved fist on the Mex­ico City podium to draw at­ten­tion to the black con­scious­ness move­ment.

Pol­i­tics and sport are cu­ri­ous bed­fel­lows but there is no es­cap­ing the fact that they are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked. Yet the IOC, which is iron­i­cally a hugely po­lit­i­cal en­tity mas­querad­ing as a sports or­gan­i­sa­tion, does its best to sep­a­rate pol­i­tics and sport.

It is fail­ing, and will con­tinue to fail, de­spite dik­tats is­sued from on high, be­cause sport is pol­i­tics. And pol­i­tics is sport. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores until 24 July 2021. From 31 July 2021, DM168 will be available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores.


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  • I disagree. Sport should be sport and politics should be politics. Just because they have been intertwined in the past does not mean that it should always be so. In fact sport should be about merit and only about merit. As much as I wish politics would also be about merit, it is not likely to be so any time soon and I think we all know why.

    If athletes want to use their brief moment in the spotlight to express their personal political views, then they must not wear their national colours while doing so. They cannot be expected to represent their country in a particular sport and then also represent that country’s myriad political views as well.

    As much as I despise the money-obsessed beasts like the IOC, FIFA etc, I believe they are correct to separate the public front and the personal front.


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