From The Daily: The International Olympic Committee’s misguided crackdown on activism

Tuesday, January 21, 2020 - 10:35am

As athletes compete at the highest caliber in Tokyo, Japan later this year, their actions and words will be watched more closely than ever thanks to new regulations from the Olympics’ organizing body. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has recently come under fire for issuing Rule 50, a ban on protests on the field, on the podium, at Olympic ceremonies and in the Olympic Village. Athletes are still allowed to express their views in press conferences, in team meetings and on social media. This rule comes after heightened political statements and attention on world sports stages from athletes like Colin Kaepernick, Feyisa Lilesa and Sarah Lee Wai-sze.

It is easy to feel powerless in the aftermath of new sweeping regulations from a large international organization such as the IOC. As the IOC is an independent non-profit organization, there is no law, international or otherwise, that prevents the Committee from creating and maintaining Rule 50. But protest has been and will always be about confronting institutional structures, pushing against legal and social boundaries and refusing to be silenced. We encourage athletes who have the means and the security to do so to speak up for the issues they believe in, and we encourage the audience watching the Olympics to be aware of the risks these athletes are facing in order to speak up. 

First, Rule 50 has particularly troublesome implications. The new rule appears as a small limitation for athletes; after all, the regulation clarifies that protest or discourse of any sort can happen away from the medals ceremonies and the athletic events themselves. Athletes can still post on their Instagrams or speak openly at their post-event press conferences. But the presentation of medals at the Olympics is far too large of a cultural symbol to dismiss Rule 50 as a small tweak to existing athletic regulations.

The medals presentation is an iconic athletic ceremony that captures the attention of the public. From Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s Black power protest at the 1968 Olympics to Race Imboden’s kneeling at the 2019 Pan American Games, the medal podium has been a crucial locus for protest from passionate and talented athletes. Furthermore, the Olympics draw in massive audiences to create a sort of international town square where people from all over the world discuss their ideas and values. As such, the Olympics create an attractive platform for protesters. When someone receives a medal, the world is watching, and it’s the most advantageous time for an athlete to publically espouse their beliefs. The Olympics are essentially allowing people to voice their opinions, but only in the spaces where these opinions would not garner attention.

The Olympics have always been political. In Ancient Greece, they were a way for political leaders of different city-states to gather and have discussions on political matters regularly. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, once said the games served not only the purpose of uniting countries through sports, but also of bringing humanity together and striving for a better world. Based on the founding idea and modern philosophy of the games, the Olympics have been one of the biggest stages for athletes to protest based on their beliefs. Despite the IOC’s ambiguously worded effort in Rule 50 to stay as apolitical as possible, the Olympics have seen numerous meaningful protests since the first modern games in 1894.

In addition to the tradition of prevalent protests during the games, the IOC itself has proved to the world time and time again how it can be blatantly political when it helps its case. The IOC chose to still invite Russian athletes to the 2018 Olympics even after the scandal of state-sponsored doping schemes during the Sochi Games in 2014. When South and North Korea decided to field a unified team for the Pyeongchang Games in 2018, IOC president Thomas Bach evidently saw an opportunity to take a stance in easing the tension in the Korean peninsula and openly welcomed the decision, even stating the games were “hopefully opening the door to a bright future on the Korean peninsula.” Given the precedent of past protests and the IOC being intentionally political on other occasions, it seems as though the Committee wants to take control over what kind of politics can be present during the Olympics and ended up banning any protests for which they could be seen responsible. 

The IOC’s new rule bans free expression. Protests function as a way for individuals or groups to express concern toward the status quo, so protestors are bound to oppose the existing regulations by nature. Protests must be public to serve the purpose of getting the intended message across to as many people as possible and bringing about change. Rule 50 does not completely ban all protests. In that sense, the new rule does not sound terribly oppressive. However, the rule limits where protests can and cannot take place and consequently bans free expression as free expression itself should have no limits. Controlling where protests can or cannot happen takes away the public and deliberately anti-establishment aspects of such demonstrations, defeating their purpose. 

Maybe it was the IOC’s goal to ban the free expression of athletes. Maybe the IOC simply did not want to be responsible for whatever the athletes could say or do with political aim. Either way, it is clear that the new rule decided by the Committee is poorly stated and misguided. Athletes may protest during the games this summer anyway. Some might even be more motivated to speak up for their cause because of the new rule. As spectators, we support the athletes and their protests as long as they are not destructive. Promoting inclusivity and peace on one of the biggest international stages should be a noble cause, not a subject of regulation.