In late 1981, International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch sent a letter to German fencer Thomas Bach and others, stating “I have decided to create an IOC Commission for athletes. This Commission will act as the spokesman of all athletes to the International Olympic Committee.”
Almost 40 years later, now-President Bach has a dependable, powerful ally in the IOC Athletes’ Commission, which supports his reform agenda, and released new guidelines to enforce what he sees as a crucial element of the IOC’s future: political neutrality.
Bach has emphasized this over and over again, reminding governments, athletes and others that the only way the Olympic Movement can survive in today’s world is to maintain its neutral posture and remain one of the only meeting points for the entire globe to come together in peace.
That’s what’s behind the brilliantly-introduced “Rule 50 Guidelines,” which was sub-titled “Developed by the IOC Athletes’ Commission,” regulating athlete protests for the Tokyo 2020 Games.
This is not about the raised fists of Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the 200 m victory stand in 1968, or the casual stance on the victory stand in 1972 by Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett of the U.S. after the 400 m. This is about 2019:
● American fencer Race Imboden took a knee during the victory ceremony after the Team Foil event at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru;
● American Gwen Berry raised her right fist at the end of the women’s hammer awards ceremony in Lima;
● Australian Mack Horton stood behind the awards platform after the 400 m Freestyle at the FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, refusing to stand next to China’s Yang Sun, who Horton felt was guilty of a doping positive that was ignored by the Chinese federation and FINA;
● British swimmer Duncan Scott, who refused to shake Sun’s hand or pose for pictures after the Worlds 200 m Freestyle.
The demonstrations by Imboden and Berry concerned U.S. domestic politics, while Horton and Scott were protesting inaction by doping authorities vs. Sun. (However, the World Anti-Doping Agency filed against Sun when FINA did not and the decision on Sun’s status is expected to be issued later this month.)
All of those are banned by the new Rule 50 Guidelines. But the reasoning and the vibe are totally different than in 1968 and 1972.
The new guidelines explain “The IOC Athletes’ Commission and the IOC are fully supportive of freedom of expression” and includes this: “That is not to say that you should be silent about the issues you care deeply about, and below you will find a list of places where you can express your views at the Olympic Games.”
This is really clever. Express yourself, but not on the field of play or the victory stand. And the guidelines are specific:
● No protests: on the field of play, in the Olympic Village, during medal ceremonies or during the Opening or Closing Ceremonies or other “official Ceremonies,” or otherwise prohibited by local laws.
● Expressions OK: Interviews and news conferences, including in the mixed zone at the venues and at the Main Media Center, at team meetings or on social media.
The guidelines made a distinction between “expressing views” and “demonstrations.” A demonstration includes any political message (“including signs or armbands”), hand gestures or kneeling or “Refusal to follow the Ceremonies protocol.” That takes care of all four of the 2019 incidents.
In Mexico City, IOC President Avery Brundage – an American – demanded that Smith and Carlos be suspended and sent home. The U.S. Olympic Committee did not agree, causing Brundage to threaten to ban the U.S. track & field team from the remainder of the Games, and the two were required to leave. An IOC statement called the protest “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.”
In Munich, Brundage sent a letter to the USOC, which included:
“The whole world saw the disgusting display of your two athletes, when they received their gold and silver medals for the 400 m event yesterday.
“This the second time the U.S.O.C. has permitted such occurrences on the athletic field. It is the Executive Board’s opinion that these two athletes have broken Rule 26 … in respect of the traditional Olympic spirit and ethic and are, therefore, eliminated from taking part in any future Olympic competition.
“If such a performance should happen in the future, please be advised that the medals will be withheld from the athletes in question.”
Both Matthews and Collett were banned from the ‘72 Games, which cost both a gold medal on the 4×400 m relay, where – without them – the U.S. was unable to field a team.
But in 2020, athlete “expressions of views” are welcomed, as long as outside the field of play and the awards ceremonies, according to regulations developed by athletes who were selected by their fellow athletes during elections held during the Olympic and Winter Games.
Brilliant, whether you agree with the rules or not.
As to sanctions, the guidelines are vague, promising only a review – on a case-by-case basis – by the National Olympic Committee or International Federation involved, and possibly the IOC.
During the news conference following last Thursday’s meeting of the Athletes’ Commission with the IOC Executive Board, Commission chair Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe – the country’s 36-year-old Minister of Youth, Sport, Arts and Recreation who won seven Olympic medals in swimming – commented:
“The majority of athletes feel it is very important that we respect each other as athletes, but we needed clarity and they needed clarity on the rules, so that’s what these guidelines do.”
Bach was asked about the guidelines and was ready with the perfect reply:
“There you have heard and seen and read the voice of the athletes. And they have issued these guidelines on Rule 50 after broad consultation, with many athletes in telephone conferences and other consultations, and they have come to the conclusion that it is very much important for each athlete that his or her Olympic moment is respected. And that the focus is on his or her Olympic moment and that there is no distraction from this unique moment in their lives by any kind of political demonstrations.”
Think about this: the 2019 demonstrations were by athletes from the U.S., Great Britain and Australia, all countries with strong free-speech traditions. There was the crossed-arms political protest by Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa as he won the marathon silver medal in Rio, but if you listened to the comments at the International Athletes Forum in 2019 and similar events, athletes from most of the rest of the world were unhappy with anything that disturbed their Olympic experience. That won’t sit well with athletes from countries like the U.S., but it’s reality.
Samaranch, still criticized for being a diplomat in Spain’s Fascist regime under Francisco Franco, saw the need to involve athletes in the IOC’s affairs some 39 years ago. Bach, one of the original members of the Athletes’ Commission, has created a potent political force with it as he continues to reform the IOC and the Olympic Movement, all the while trying to maintain the place of the Olympic Games as an oasis of peace in a turbulent world.