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It is profoundly depressing to see smart people do inexplicably foolish things. To lose their sense of order, of balance, of insight.
It’s the sadness of hearing, over and over again, the illogical approach of one of the most effective leaders in the history of the International Olympic Committee, President Thomas Bach of Germany, to the question of Russian and Belarusian re-entry into international sport, let alone participation in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
Bach has, through his Olympic Agenda 2020, reduced the costs of bidding for the Games by more than 90% and eliminated the humiliation of bid cities and countries which were not selected. Bach has led the campaign to reduce the cost of the Games, especially by insisting that bids use existing or temporary facilities as much as possible. Under Bach’s leadership, the International Testing Agency was created to take over International Federation anti-doping programs, and now is wholly or partly responsible for 21 of 28 summer Olympic sports. The Olympic Channel was created as a still-expanding promotional tool and the Youth Olympic Games – which appeared to have little value – has become a proving ground for new sports and events, and countries that wish to demonstrate their abilities as hosts.
These are good things and the IOC’s commercial success has allowed more and more funding for such programs. Deftly, where the Games went to China twice, Russia once and a barely up-to-the-challenge Brazil between 2008-22, the host selections since then have been for Paris, Milan Cortina, Los Angeles, Brisbane and likely Salt Lake City or Stockholm for 2024-32.
But now there is the Russian invasion of Ukraine, begun exactly a year ago – 24 February 2022 – four days after the close of the Beijing Winter Games – in which the 2014 invasion of the Crimea region (and a subsequent “annexation” by Russia) has been extended to eastern Ukraine in which two new Russian “People’s Republics” have been declared (imposed) on Donetsk and Luhansk.
And it is Bach who is leading the charge to find a way to bring Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials back into international sport. The “Declaration of the Olympic Summit,” organized by the IOC last December noted:
● “The Summit emphasised that participation in sports competitions must be based exclusively on the sporting merits of an athlete and respect for the rules of sport.”
● “All athletes had to be protected from political interference. The integrity of sports competitions had to be ensured. This led the IOC to act against its mission to unify the entire world in peaceful competition, since it had to prohibit athletes from participation because of their passport only.”
Bach and the IOC have lost their way. Their own guiding document, the Olympic Charter, states in Rules 1 and 2, what are – supposedly – their guiding principles, including:
● 1.1: “The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised in accordance with Olympism and its values.”
● 2.1: “The IOC’s role is: to encourage and support the promotion of ethics and good governance in sport as well as education of youth through sport and to dedicate its efforts to ensuring that, in sport, the spirit of fair play prevails and violence is banned”;
● 2.11 “to oppose any political or commercial abuse of sport and athletes”;
● 2.18 “to promote safe sport and the protection of athletes from all forms of harassment and abuse.”
The Russian war against Ukraine violates all of these – fair play, violence, political abuse of Ukrainian sport and athletes, safe sport and the protection from harassment and abuse – such as in killing athletes and coaches, destroying their homes, practice fields and livelihoods.
Oh, but the IOC holds on only to 2.11: “to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement.”
Again, Bach and the IOC have lost the plot. The discrimination is by Russia (aided by Belarus) against Ukraine, not the other way around.
But the IOC pretzels the issue and relies – stunningly – on two honorary volunteers who are appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council “to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation.” Let’s remember that the U.N. Human Rights Council’s membership currently includes China, Cuba, Qatar, Vietnam … and, oh yes, Ukraine. You think the Ukrainians would agree with this section of the Olympic Summit Declaration:
“A letter by the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights and the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance of the United Nations Human Rights Council. They express ‘serious concern about the recommendation to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials such as judges from international competitions, based solely on their nationality, as a matter of principle. This raises serious issues of non-discrimination.’”
That the IOC would rely so heavily on such statements by volunteer observers shows the abject weakness of its position. Bach’s indulgence of everything the U.N. does speaks poorly to any review of the U.N.’s effectiveness in achieving its primary objective, from Article 1 of the U.N. Charter:
“To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace …”
The U.N. has been, since its inception, spectacularly ineffective in stopping wars all over the globe, and because of the role of the USSR and now Russia as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, no sanctions can be placed on Russia as it has an unimpeachable veto.
Furthermore, the Russians read the U.N. Charter and the Olympic Charter, too. If the IOC really, really, really means to be politically neutral – per the Olympic Charter – then there should be no restrictions on Russian or Belarusian athletes and officials at all!
Speaking of the resolution of the 27-nation European Parliament condemning Russian and Belarusian re-entry into international sport, passed 444-26 (37 abstentions) on 16 February, Russian State Duma deputy Svetlana Zhurova, the 2006 Olympic Speed Skating gold medalist in the women’s 500 m, told TASS on 20 February:
“If [the call of the European Parliament] turns out to be effective, then the IOC can end its existence, it can no longer be considered an independent organization.”
If the IOC is committed to being absolutely, completely, totally neutral, it must allow free participation by Russian and Belarusian athletes, officials and teams, including anthems and flags.
But that is not what the Olympic Charter says. As we have seen already, the Charter states that the IOC must “oppose any political or commercial abuse of sport and athletes” and “promote safe sport and the protection of athletes from all forms of harassment and abuse.”
Russia and Belarus have discriminated in every possible way against the rights of Ukrainian sport – and in violation of the U.N. Charter, which may come as news to its Human Rights Rapporteurs – with the actions of these governments confirmed by their National Olympic Committees.
In fact, in Rule 27, the Olympic Charter requires National Olympic Committees:
● 2.5: “to take action against any form of discrimination and violence in sport,” and
● 5: “[T]he NOCs may cooperate with governmental bodies, with which they shall achieve harmonious relations. However, they shall not associate themselves with any activity which would be in contradiction with the Olympic Charter.”
Can the Russian and Belarusian NOCs be more egregiously in contravention with the Olympic Charter than supporting the war against Ukraine? And in Rule 59.1.4 of the Charter, the IOC Executive Board has the authority to suspend a National Olympic Committee. But the IOC has not done so.
Bach’s absolute insistence that the IOC’s raison d’etre is to bring the entire world together in a peaceful festival of sport, regardless of the situation, not only contravenes the Olympic Charter, but flies in the face of the IOC’s own history and precedents.
Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey – the World War I aggressors – were not invited to the 1920 Antwerp Games. Germany and Japan – the World War II aggressors – were not invited to the 1948 London Games.
Ancient history? Then how about the Seoul Games of 1988, threatened almost right up to the Opening Ceremony by a possible boycott from the USSR and the Warsaw Pact, and boycotted in fact by North Korea and Cuba.
Did then-IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch (ESP) look for ways to get a token presence from either country to Seoul? No. He was trying to make the Games a success, and recognized that kowtowing to the ridiculous demands of North Korea, or to try and get some Cuban athletes to jeopardize their own safety by disobeying their repressive Communist regime and coming to Seoul was not just futile, but dangerous.
And the Seoul Games were a remarkable success. Wrote now-Honorary IOC Member Dick Pound (CAN) in his 1994 retrospective, Five Rings Over Korea, “The few holdouts were not significant.” He added, presciently to the current morass:
“It would be naive to think that the Olympics were a fulcrum from which the rest of the world moved. In the ultimate application of realpolitik, the self-interest of states will override an event even as important as the Olympic Games. …
“The few renegades were identified as such and their absences noted, with regret, but without much sympathy, except for the sacrificed athletes who were the meat in a rather stale diplomatic sandwich.”
Today, it is Russia and Belarus who are the renegades and have sacrificed their athlete’s opportunities by befouling the Olympic Movement and mocking the Olympic Charter.
After the Covid-impacted Tokyo Games and the unsatisfying Beijing Winter Games amid human rights issues in China and the still-unresolved Kamila Valieva Russian doping case in figure skating, the IOC needs an unqualified hit in Paris.
Samaranch understood this in Seoul; let’s hope that his successor, Bach, is just as wise.
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