The Inherent Dilemma of Olympic Protest Rules

Late last week, Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, posted an open letter on her Twitter account. “We have made the decision,” Hirshland wrote, ” that Team USA athletes should not be sanctioned for peacefully and respectfully demonstrating for racial and social justice for all human beings.”With this announcement, she effectively asserted that the board would no longer punish the United States. athletes for violation of Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter which prohibits demonstrations as well as “political, religious or racial propaganda” at the Olympic Games. The usopc’s decision was made in solidarity with the Council of the Organization for racial and social justice, which recently released a four-page document calling on the international Olympic Committee to silence athletes wishing to use its platform to protest peacefully. “Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right,” the Council wrote.

Hirshland and the council for racial and social justice, however, assured that not all ideas should be freely expressed:” it is essential above all to make it clear that human rights are not political and that peaceful Appeals for justice and equality should not be confused with manifestations of division, ” Hirshland wrote.

Since it is possible to adopt a “political” point of view on any subject, the question of what is political or not tends to tormented and cyclical debates. But it might be more interesting to ask how to distinguish between peaceful protest and”divisive demonstrations”.”As everyone who reads the news knows, not everyone seems to agree on where to draw the line here. Hirshland, for its part, ignores the issue in his Tweet and doesn’t try to suggest what a divisive demonstration might look like.

In contrast, the racial and Social justice Council, which formulated its statement as a “list of recommendations” for the IOC, strives to define its terms: “in the context of possible amendments to IOC rule 50/IPC section 2.2, it is important to recognize that this right is linked to the responsibility to speak ethically,” the Council writes. “We do not consider hate speech, racist propaganda and discriminatory remarks aimed at eliminating the rights and dignity of historically marginalized and minor populations as ethical language requirements.”

The declaration further recommends that the IOC draw a clear line between manifestations of human rights and discrimination against marginalized groups. It proposes classifying these as “divisional disturbances” and assigning an independent regulator to review potential cases and identify the consequences of violations.

This of course raises the question of who can decide what constitutes “ethical discourse” or “remarks that discriminate against historically marginalized populations”—a potentially problematic topic when it comes to establishing a code of Conduct for a competition to which virtually every nation in the world belongs. (According to the IOC, the 2016 Olympic Games hosted 207 national Olympic committees. Should the fervent defender of Israeli settlements in the West Bank be reprimanded? What about a Chinese athlete opposed to the protest movement in Hong Kong? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, we find ourselves in a Situation where a national Olympic Committee is supposed to punish an athlete for reflecting the official Position of the ruling party of that country. I don’t really see.

Aside from national politics, there is the controversial debate about Trans athletes and Olympic sports. True, this population qualifies as a historically marginalized population. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be questions about how to balance Trans-inclusion efforts with fairness in competition. Would a cisgender athlete who worries about the rules of inclusion of Trans athletes be guilty-and openly says so-of discrimination??

Hazard did not respond to a request for comment on some of these questions when I contacted them last week. However, I received a response from Tianna Bartoletta, an American sprinter, long jumper and multiple Olympic gold medalist, who sits on the Steering Committee of the Council on racism and discrimination. In an e-Mail, Bartoletta expressed Frustration that the IOC seemed to insist that all protests be treated the same. (The IOC is expected to announce possible rule 50 updates early next year.) “Time after Time they meet our requirement with the false equivalence that a raised fist is equal to a Nazi salute” Bartoletta said. “This demand for equality for a people is equal to hate speech.”

However, the implementation of an updated rule 50 should also apply to situations that do not offer such a well-forked moral choice. Which makes me wonder whether the IOC would prefer to remove the “no political propaganda” aspect of Rule 50 as a whole, while possibly implementing a “no hate speech” clause on the model of the council for racial and social justice. (The definition of” hate speech “can also be controversial, but at least it’s an internationally established concept rather than” discriminatory remarks toward marginalized people.”In the long run, this might be more doable for the IOC than clinging to a maximalist and—let’s be honest—illusory saying of total neutrality. I am not convinced that relaxing the rules in this way would make the Games an ideological spectacle to the detriment of athletes.

If I want to give the IOC the benefit of the doubt—not my default position— I tell myself that what they are really afraid of is not so much a repeat of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists at the 68 games, but a contemporary Version of the Munich massacre in 1972, when Palestinian militants murdered Israeli athletes and coaches in the Olympic village. From this point of view, maintaining the” neutrality of sport”, the sacred doctrine of the Olympic Charter, is a bulwark against international conflicts. (This has worked really well so far.) But potential terrorists are obviously not deterred by dubious statements of an Olympic ceasefire. For the same reason, I don’t think anyone who would desperately want to make a Nazi salute on the Olympic Podium would really care whether such a gesture is officially allowed or not.

On the other hand, you don’t have to be the world’s greatest cynic to know that the reason the IOC is so stubbornly betting on political neutrality is not because it believes it can contribute to World Peace Through Sport, but because it wants to protect its product by minimizing controversy. Until now, this was the most effective way to do this by committing the Olympic Games as a protest-free Zone. It remains to be seen whether the USOPC has the leverage to force a change.

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