Sonja Santa Maria | Melbourne Law School (graduate)
POLITICS, HUMAN RIGHTS AND SPORTS: AN IOC CHALLENGE
The International Olympics Committee (IOC) faces an increasing need to address whether its hard-line stance of political neutrality is still viable.
Three events in the past week have brought this the IOC’s stance into question:
I ADDRESSING POLITICAL INTERFERENCE IN BELARUS
The Belarusian National Olympic Committee (BNOC) has recently been under investigation by the IOC after it received complaints from individual athletes claiming they were being discriminated against by the BNOC.
Athletes and sport officials participating in protests against the re-election of President Lukashenko have been imprisoned or are facing disciplinary action for their participation. President Lukashenko is the Belarusian Head of State and President of the BNOC,and it is alleged the President told athletes that protesting against his re-election would result in them not being able to compete for Belarus.
The IOC affirmed the BNOC investigation is focused on protecting athletes against non-discrimination and will deal with the matter in accordance with the Charter. Pursuant to the Charter, the IOC must take actions to maintain the independence, political neutrality and autonomy of sport. Non- discrimination is a fundamental principle to protect the ‘human right’ of sport, and the IOC must oppose any political abuse of athletes.
However, whilst the Charter requires National Olympic Committees (NOCs) to resist political pressure, it also provides a loophole for NOCs to elect government leaders as members and potentially undermining the goal of political neutrality. Specifically, it provides governments cannot designate any NOC members, but the NOC itself has discretion to elect members as representatives of governments. Consequently, the potential for conflict of interest and political pressure has always been rife.
President Lukashenko has been the President of the BNOC for 23 years. Many other Heads of States serve as members on their respective NOCs. These facts suggest the IOC has not given much attention to this issue. The Charter allows the IOC to suspend or withdraw recognition of an NOC for actual infringement or even for any acts that impede on the activities of the NOC. In light of increased political interference, the IOC may look to introduce conflict of interest principles to provide further safeguard the autonomy of sport. Such an addition to the Charter is within the IOC’s mandate and importantly aligns with the Olympic spirit.
II POLITICAL PRESSURE TO BOYCOTT CHINA
In the past month, governments and human rights groups have called on the IOC to move the 2022 Olympics due to China’s human rights violations against the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, and other violations in Tibet and Hong Kong. Australian Senator, Rex Patrick, has introduced a motion in the Australian Senate for Australia to boycott the Beijing Olympics, placing more pressure on the IOC to move the 2022 Winter Olympics from Beijing.
The Chinese government have dismissed the allegations and denied any human rights violations. Instead, the Chinese government retorts that the allegations are an attempt to politicise sport and discriminate against China and the Olympic spirit. The IOC’s in their response have reiterated that: 'Awarding the Olympic Games to a national Olympic committee does not mean that the IOC agrees with the political structure, social circumstances or human rights standards in the country.'
The IOC wishes to remain politically impartial. However, a role of the IOC is to ‘promote a positive legacy from the Olympic Games’, and complying with human rights principles are now a key requirement of host cities. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights have been introduced into Host City Contracts (Contract) from 2017. Future Contracts with host cities now have more scope for human rights violations to underpin a decision by the IOC to terminate the Contract.
The current Contract between the IOC and China, acknowledges in its preamble the values and image of the Olympics, and universal fundamental ethical principles. The IOC can terminate the contract and withdraw the Games from Beijing if China violates the Contract or Charter. Further, the IOC can proceed to initiate the termination on the basis that grounds for termination ‘is reasonably likely to occur’. Evidence of China’s human rights violation and international condemnation against it may suggest that the IOC can terminate the Contract.
If the IOC elects to terminate the Contract, and there is no urgent action needed, it must give China notice to remedy any contingencies, failure of which allows the IOC to terminate the Contract with immediate effect. In making such a decision, it is key the IOC reiterate its grounds for termination by alluding to the need for the host city to align with fundamental principles of Olympism, including non-discrimination. Therefore, the IOC can still maintain its political neutrality whilst terminating the Contract.
III ADDRESSING POLITICAL ACTIVISM AND RULE 50
IOC Member, Sebastian Coe, has made a surprising comment of non-conformity with the IOC’s politically neutral stance, stating he believes and supports athletes’ rights to make gestures of political protest during the Games. Rule 50 of the Charter explicitly prohibits any ‘kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda… in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas’.
Coe stated he was supportive of athletes who wish to take a knee on a podium. This is concerning because it delivers a mixed message to athletes as to their required behaviour. An athlete breaching Rule 50 may result in their temporary or permanent ineligibility or exclusion from the Games, disqualification, or withdrawal of their accreditation. With pro-kneeling athletes such as Lebron James, Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis rostered to participate as part of the United States’ delegation, such encouragement can be very detrimental to the athlete.
Guidelines on Rule 50 state the focus of the Games is to be on sport performance itself and proscribes actions that are politically divisive. It is important to note Rule 50 specifically pertains to political demonstrations or propaganda that occurs within Olympic areas. The Guidelines clearly allow athletes to express themselves beyond these areas and during press conferences or online. This is paralleled in the Athletes Declaration of Rights and Responsibilities which balance an athlete’s right to freedom of expression, and their responsibilities to respect the rights of others and refrain from political demonstrations.
Whilst there have been calls for the amendment or abolishment of Rule 50, a balanced amendment would be difficult as it blurs the lines on the extent of political gestures permissible. The IOC has the power make such amendments or abolish the rule, but it would arguably change the spirit and character of the Olympics.
IV CONCLUDING REMARKS
The issues discussed in this piece highlight the progressive intersection of political issues, human rights and sport. The IOC is mandated to maintain political neutrality. It nevertheless must deal with political issues. The issue for the IOC is articulating itself in addressing such issues to ensure that it operates within its Charter.
IOC, ‘IOC Strengthens Investigation into Possible Political Interference in Belarus’ (Press Release, 7 October 2020) <https://www.olympic.org/news/ioc-strengthens-investigation-into-possible-political-interference-in-belarus>.
Tracey Holmes, ‘International Olympic Committee Facing Pressure to Address Human Rights Issues’, ABC News (Press Release, 9 October 2020) <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-10-10/international-olympic-committee-facing-pressure-on-human-rights/12749268>.
IOC, ‘National Olympic Committee of the Republic of Belarus’ (Web Page, 30 January 2020) <https://www.olympic.org/belarus>.
Holmes (n 2).
IOC (n 1).
IOC, Olympic Charter (17 July 2020) ('Olympic Charter').
Ibid Rule 27.
Ibid Rule 28.4.
See, eg, Play The Game, ‘One in Seven Olympic Committees Are Directly Linked to Governments’ (Article, 8 June 2017) <https://www.playthegame.org/news/news-articles/2017/0311_one-in-seven-olympic-committees-are-directly-linked-to-governments/>.
Olympic Charter (n 6) Rule 27.9.
Stephen Wade, ‘Human Rights Groups Ask IOC to Move 2022 Olympics Out of China’, The Diplomat (Article, 9 September 2020) <https://thediplomat.com/2020/09/human-rights-groups-ask-ioc-to-move-2022-olympics-out-of-china/>.
Commonwealth, Parliamentary Debates, Senate, 6 October 2020, (Rex Patrick, Senator) <https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Hansard/Hansard_Display?bid=chamber/hansards/c91a4ec3-f3ea-42a6-8e14-153eead3a808/&sid=0233> ('China: Human Rights’). See also Holmes (n 2).
Eryk Bagshaw, ‘China Dismisses Concerns over Human Rights Abuses Tarnishing Winter Olympics’, The Sydney Morning Herald (Article, 23 September 2020) <https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/china-dismisses-concerns-over-human-rights-abuses-tarnishing-winter-olympics-20200923-p55yei.html>. See also Wade (n 13).
See, eg. Wade (n 13).
Olympic Charter (n 6) Rule 2.15.
China: Human Rights (n 12).
IOC, ‘Host City Contract - XXIV Olympic Winter Games 2022’ (11 October 2020) < https://stillmed.olympic.org/media/Document%20Library/OlympicOrg/Documents/Host-City-Elections/XXIV-OWG-2022/Host-City-Contract-for-the-XXIV-Olympic-Winter-Games-in-2022.pdf>.
Ibid Preamble (L).
Ibid Preamble (T).
Ibid cl 68(a)(iv).
Ibid cl 68(b)(i).
Ibid cl 68.
Jack Tarrant, ‘Lord Coe Puts Pressure on IOC to Overturn Ban on Taking a Knee’, The Independent (8 October 2020) <https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/olympics/2020-olympics-take-knee-podium-protest-lord-coe-ioc-tokyo-b880148.html>.
Olympic Charter (n 6) rule 50.2.
Tarrant (n 25).
Olympic Charter (n 6) rule 60.2.1.
USA Basketball, ‘2020 U.S. Men’s Olympic Team Finalists Roster’, (2020) <https://www.usab.com:443/mens/national-team/roster.aspx>.
Athletes Commission International Olympic Committee, ‘Rule 50 Guidelines’ <https://www.olympic.org/-/media/document%20library/olympicorg/news/2020/01/rule-50-guidelines-tokyo-2020.pdf>.
IOC, ‘Athletes’ Declaration of Rights and Responsibilities’, <https://www.olympic.org/athlete365/athletesdeclaration/>.
Tarrant (n 25).
Please note, content published on the blog is not legal advice and should not be viewed as such. Articles are published for general information purposes and to promote discussion on topics within sport law. You should consult a suitably qualified lawyer for any legal matter.