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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