The International Olympic Committee has always been political, from sheikhs and royals to a seat in the United Nations to promoting peace talks between the Koreas. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine three weeks ago exposed its irreconcilable claims of “political neutrality”.
The IOC policy was evident in Hitler’s 1936 Olympics. During the Cold War, the Games were the scene of conflicts (Mexico City), violence (Munich) and boycotts (Moscow). To date, the IOC has partnered with authoritarian states such as China and Russia, starting with the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, through the doping-scarred Sochi Games to the Beijing Winter Olympics which have just ended.
Gaping gaps exist between what the IOC has long insisted is “the very heart of world sport” – and a closer view of reality; a not-for-profit sports company, based in Switzerland, which derives approximately 90% of its revenue from the sale of broadcast rights and sponsorships.
Increasingly, the IOC must respond to wealthy sponsors which were barely a factor 30 years ago when the Games, almost bankrupt, became commercial and professional. Olympic athletes are demanding a bigger slice of the pie, aware that their careers are fragile (only 30% of them participate more than once in the Olympic Games).
The most visible policies involve the 206 nations and territories who enter the Games with national colors, flags and moving anthems – but never in a vacuum. By comparison, the UN has only 193 member states.
After the invasion of Ukraine — acting due to a violation of the so-called Olympic truce and not because of the war itself – the IOC has recommended that sports federations and event organizers “not invite or allow” Russian or Belarusian athletes to participate.
But he left loopholes, stayed out of the fray and urged others to act. Many have done so, excluding Russians and Belarusians from most sports competitions. The IOC itself has not banned Russian or Belarusian Olympic committees, or IOC members from those countries, nor has it publicly called on major IOC sponsors to take action.
The IOC tries to play both ways – and often three or four ways.
“Taking a tough stance on Russia is relatively safe. And the only critics will be those of us who point out the IOC’s inconsistencies,” said Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and author of “The Olympic Games – A Critical Approach.”
HEAR THE VOICE OF THE ATHLETES?
The IOC has an internal Athletes’ Commission, but it is under pressure from outside groups. To participate in the Olympics, athletes must waive their image and likeness rights, limit their freedom of expression and also sign waivers. The waivers for the Tokyo and Beijing Olympics had an additional clause that relieved the IOC of any liability for any fallout related to COVID-19.
The IOC said athletes and national federations have insurance cover for most eventualities.
Rob Koehler, general secretary of advocacy group Global Athlete, said his body had helped Ukrainian athletes write to the IOC asking for a ban on Russia and Belarus. He said he received no response or acknowledgment of receipt of the letter.
“Failure to act quickly against Russia and Belarus will continue to erode the Olympic brand,” Koehler said, “and when that brand erodes, those most affected are the athletes – those who fill the stadium and attract sponsors and broadcasters.”
At his first press conference 8½ years ago as IOC President, Thomas Bach spelled out the organization’s position with precise ambiguity.
“The IOC cannot be apolitical,” Bach said. “We need to realize that our decisions at events like the Olympics have political implications. And when we make those decisions, of course we have to consider the political implications.”
Before his words could be parsed, however, he added to the riddle: “But to fulfill our role of ensuring that the Charter is upheld at the Olympic Games and for the participants, we must be strictly politically neutral. And there, we must also protect the athletes.
A day before the opening of the Winter Olympics last month, Bach said the IOC’s position should be “political neutrality”. He said to do otherwise would put “the Games at risk”. Three weeks later, after Bach stood alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the opening ceremony, Russia invaded Ukraine.
The IOC then acknowledged a reality, saying the war had created a “dilemma that cannot be resolved”.
The key to the success of the Olympics was as much political as sporting. Part of the irresistible tension behind the Olympics is the competition between countries, the nationalism, the flying flags and the captivating anthems. Winning the most gold medals becomes a substitute for national superiority, increasingly a competition between authoritarians and democracies.
Many Olympic disciplines have little popularity, attracting an audience every four years through the quest for gold. Few people except hardcore fans would care about Greco-Roman wrestling, modern pentathlon or fencing – if so, nationalism was not the obvious backdrop. And China has become a powerhouse at the Paralympic Winter Games, allowing it to tout its lead atop the medal table to increasingly nationalistic audiences.
Patriotism and politics drive part of the Olympics’ appeal to sponsors and TV broadcasters, while simultaneously the IOC insists it is politically neutral. The IOC has permanent observer status with the United Nations to increase its political weight, not reduce it. A sporting enterprise, the IOC is one of a handful of non-governmental organizations – the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies being another – that shares the same status.
Jules Boykoff, professor of political science at the University of the Pacific and critic of the IOC, suggested that instead of athletes marching under national flags, they should enter sports disciplines – skaters together, basketball players in a group, gymnasts paired. “Athletes might get to know each other better with this kind of encounter,” said Boykoff, author of “Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics.”
But no national flags. Of course, no national flag could sound the death knell for the Olympic Games.
Boykoff said the IOC, if it recognizes the policy, “opens the door to a deeper discussion of what kind of policy the IOC supports.”
“Over the years, the IOC has shown an overt tolerance for tyranny. But by using ‘apolitical’ as a shield, they can ward off legitimate criticism and simply pretend they’re working with everyone, no matter what. They choose to ignore the fact that neutrality can mean siding with oppressive forces.
POLICY FROM THE BEGINNING
In Antwerp in 1920, the defeated countries of the First World War were not invited to attend. This meant Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. The newly formed Soviet Union also did not participate.
In 1936 in Berlin, Hitler hoped to use the Games to tout supposed Aryan racial superiority. American black Jesse Owens won four gold medals, blunting Hitler’s propaganda.
In Mexico City in 1968, black Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the podium in a salute to black power. The United States Olympic Committee kicked them off the team, but in 2019 they were inducted into the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee Hall of Fame.
China held the The 2008 Olympics with the belief that they could produce improvements in human rights, the consensus is that such progress has not happened, and the just-concluded 2022 Winter Olympics were held amid a pandemic in the midst of worsening human rights conditions for Uyghur and Tibetan minorities, and a tighter grip on Hong Kong.
International Paralympic Committee President Andrew Parsons has complained that his speech at the March 4 opening ceremony, which began with an impassioned anti-war plea, was censored by China’s state broadcaster. China has refused to publicly criticize Russia’s invasion, and Parsons’ English words were either not translated or muted, which Chinese officials attributed to an unexplained “glitch”.
Now the Olympics are moving from China, a country that bans virtually all demonstrations, to France, where vigorous street protest is part of the culture – and where dissent could be exaggerated rather than suppressed. For Paris, when it comes to keeping order, it could be a tough ride.
Xu Guoqi, a historian at the University of Hong Kong and author of “Olympic Dreams: China and Sports”, suggests that any “new Cold War era” could be bad news for the Games. After all, as Xu points out, during the original Cold War “everything was political” and the Olympics were snuffed out by three boycotts – Montreal, Moscow and Los Angeles. The Olympic spirit then faded – and could still do so.
“It seems to me,” Xu said, “there have never been pure Olympics.”
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