The Athlete’s Commission of the International Olympic Committee (‘IOC’) has released the recommendations for Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter following a reportedly extensive consultation with athletes, sports law experts and human rights consultants. Rule 50.2 states that ‘no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas’. The timely consultation began in June 2020, arising in a time where political statements in the sporting world are increasing.
The consultation was reportedly conducted via a questionnaire that was completed by over 3,500 athletes across all 41 Olympic sports representing 185 different National Olympic Committees. The IOC’s Athletes Commission has also clarified the opportunities that athlete’s currently have to express their views at Olympic Games. These opportunities included during press conferences and interviews as well as through digital or traditional media. The results of the consultation offer new opportunities on how athletes can express their views at the Olympic Games.
The recommendations included highlighting the importance of solidarity, unity and non-discrimination at the opening and closing ceremonies and producing athlete apparel with inclusive messaging (proposed words are peace, respect, solidarity, inclusion and equality) as a response to concerns about increased opportunities for athletes’ expression during the Olympic Games.
In regard to demonstrations on fields of play and podiums, it is reported that 70% of the respondents did not believe it was appropriate to demonstrate or express their views on the field of play or at official ceremonies and 67% of the respondents did not believe it was appropriate to demonstrate on the podium. However, some athlete representatives took a different view and used freedom of expression and freedom of speech as their argument.
The consultation took this into account and consulted human rights and sports law experts and the outcome states that while freedom of speech and expression is a universally recognised fundamental human right, it is not absolute. It all states that freedom of speech and freedom of expression may be restricted under a very limited set of conditions. The consultation also stated the importance of protecting athletes from potential consequences of being placed in a position where they may be forced to take a public position on a particular issue regardless of their beliefs. As such, the recommendation for this area is to preserve the podium, fields of play and official ceremonies from any kinds of protests and demonstrations or any acts perceived as such.
The World Players Association has criticised the decision. ‘Human rights are not a popularity contest and they must urgently be embedded in the Olympic movement in line with expert recommendations’, World Players Association executive director Brendan Schwab said. ‘Unless and until this occurs the human rights of vulnerable athletes will be at risk’. The World Players Association had also submitted recommendations to the IOC on ways to improve their consultation process as it regards the survey and its methodology as not only fundamentally flawed but a risk to vulnerable athletes. The submission is available here.
In the Melbourne Sports Law Association’s ‘Human Rights and Sports Law’ Panel, former Olympic swimmer Nikki Dryden spoke of the importance of allowing scope for all athletes, particularly those from minority groups and oppressed societies, to express political and religious opinions in Olympic forums. ‘There are very few opportunities that minority athletes have [to express their opinion]’, she said.
With silent protests, including taking a knee, being banned from the podium, Kirsty Coventry, the IOC Athletes Commission chair, declined to say what would happen to a modern-day Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Both sprinters performed the Black Power Salute on the podium in silent protest at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. Ms Coventry said that the IOC is asking the Legal Affairs Commission to develop a proportionate range of different sanctions for these actions with the IOC now considering implementing sanctions for those who breach Rule 50.2.
The conclusions presented will be taken into account from the Olympic Games in Tokyo 2021 onwards. Among the recommendations, the ones most likely to be deemed important to introduce are to hold a moment of solidarity against discrimination during the Opening Ceremony and to have unified messaging around inclusion and solidarity on the field of play.
With both criticism and support for the recommendations being shared it will be interesting to see how the IOC handles the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games with the increase in athlete activism being seen around the globe. As noted, having a global platform for those minority groups or persons from oppressed societies to express political opinions in Olympic forums is important. But there are also concerns regarding the importance of maintaining the neutrality of the Olympic Games and keeping politics separate from sport.
The full list of the concerns and recommendations is available to view here.