(This guest column is by one of the most knowledgeable observers of the Olympic Movement, Britain’s David Miller. For more than 50 years, the former English footballer has covered the Olympic Games and the sports within it, including 15 years as the Chief Sports Correspondent of The Times of London, with stints at the Daily Express and the Daily Telegraph. Author of books on athletics, football and the Olympics, he was Official Historian of the IOC from 1997-2018. His opinions are, of course, his own alone.)
May I pose a hypothetical Olympic scenario? Recall the Barcelona Games of 1992, and just suppose the current Catalonian Separatist movement had then been demonstrably entrenched, with Madrid’s Castilian government opposition exercising imprisonment. Had Catalonian sympathy among Spain’s 22 medal-winners ruptured the podium ceremonies, the truly memorable social engagement of those blissful games would have been sunk.
Here is today’s equivalent surge of emotional demand, by both individuals and several organisations exploiting the current protests, for abolition of the IOC’s Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter: prohibition of protest in the Olympic arena and more specifically on the medal podium.
Police brutality against Afro-Americans is far from being the only injustice in the world, yet now dominate media attention. If Prime Minister Boris Johnson can bow to England footballer Marcus Rashford on the Covid-19 pandemic issue of free school meals, where now stands IOC President Thomas Bach? We are not quite yet at a crossroads where amiable articulate footballers determine social morality.
For the IOC to relent, and submit to demonstration against not merely perceived but blatant and often criminal public authority injustice, would inevitably open Olympic doors to every imaginable ceremonial abuse.
Be sure, the potential platforms are extensive: ethnic cleansing in Myanmar or Congo, gay rights repression in Russia, French separatism in Quebec, repression in Hong Kong and Tibet, global corruption in 20 nations. You name it.
Led by Thomas Bach, the IOC has to hold its nerve in defence of a 3,000-year Greek ideology, faith in human nature: precious trust in the potential of mankind’s generosity and desire for integration.
There are an increasing number of protesting opponents, some opportunist and driven by the tide of civic frustration generated by Covid-19. One such is Gwen Berry. Mostly, you will not have heard of her, or indeed what she does: she throws the hammer for USA. She says in her open letter, “I’d estimate 0.01% of people know what the hammer throw is.”
Berry is a fortunate woman, living in a country, whatever its injustices, which has the financial means and momentum to provide facilities for Berry’s esoteric activity, which cannot be considered likely to promote social egalitarianism for Afro-Americans but allows Berry a full sense of acceptance as Pan American champion.
Berry belongs to the agitprop organisation ‘Global Athlete,’ promotional body for professional sports ‘Athletes’ Rights.’ In a lengthy letter proclaiming Rule 50’s injustice, Berry tosses one philosophical contradiction upon another.
To attempt to separate sport and politics “is absurd,” she claims, because “governments fund the Olympics.” Not always, memorably not at LA ’84, and when they do, it is because the audience appetite exists. “Is it sport or entertainment,” Berry poses? Well, it’s both, sport itself innocent, but uniquely dramatic in entertainment because the result is unknown.
IOC rules are designed, Berry alleges, to ensure support of governments and sponsors. Yes, on the one hand, yet 90 per cent of the IOC’s receipts are invested straight back into sport (including Berry’s) via continental and international federations and National Olympic Committees.
Berry laments the “sacrifice in training” which will “never be repaid”. Has sport’s investment in Gwen Berry not granted her an agreeable professional lifestyle since 2011?
The priceless value of Rule 50 is exactly because it excludes protest: an immutable contract of respect among 10,000 or so athletes of every race, colour and creed. Berry proclaims athletes are silenced: for some 300-odd days a year, they can protest as often as they wish. To suggest the medal podium “is the most significant opportunity for peaceful protest in one’s life” is profoundly counter-intuitive – rather like raising suddenly a black-gloved fist in the middle of your wedding ceremony.
Administrative bodies parallel to Olympic events, such as continental and Paralympics, need to be careful in response to current emotions. David Grevemberg, CEO of the Commonwealth Games Federation and mastermind of the 2014 event in Glasgow, has observed: “I think we need to be supportive… what is represented on the podium is our convictions… allowing protest does not equate to politicising a Games.” Sorry, but I suggest Mr. Grevemberg is wrong. We can philosophically believe what we wish, but on the podium this is temporarily subordinated to the joy of friendship and participation. As Oscar Wilde wrote, we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.
A past would-be Olympian in two sports, during a decade in the Eighties while chief sports correspondent of The Times, London, I campaigned in some 80 articles for reacceptance in Apartheid South Africa of those sports such as athletics and boxing which were clearly racially integrated. Globally acclaimed black South Africans would have accelerated, I calculated, the drive towards emancipation ultimately achieved by Nelson Mandela.
As commentator at twenty-four Olympics, my experience has been illuminated by non-white pinnacles: from boyhood admiration as reader about Jesse Owens to live attendance of American Billy Mills, South Africa’s Josiah Thugwane, Australia’s Cathy Freeman and many more. It was a privilege to have known that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. disciple Andrew Young, moralistic director of Atlanta ’96, who preached that response to most evil “is education.”