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Spencer Harris

Dr. Spencer Harris 

Last Friday, the opening ceremony for the highly anticipated Olympic Summer Games took place in Tokyo. Thousands of athletes stepped onto the largest stage in global sport to represent their home countries and compete for a prized Olympic medal.

For some, the Olympics represent hope, a sign of unity, solidarity and friendship among nations. A time when the world unites under five rings to celebrate athleticism and excellence. But what happens when the sources of this athleticism and excellence — the athletes — choose to use their platform to bring attention to the political and social causes of the time?

According to new guidelines from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in the Olympic Charter, these demonstrations will remain prohibited to keep sport politically neutral.

Today, Rule 50(2), which “prohibits demonstrations or political, religious, or racial propaganda in any Olympic sites, venues, or other areas” is among the most controversial as it constitutes a specific law in sport that explicitly restricts international human rights pertaining to freedom of expression. It also illustrates the complexity and contradictions of sport and the paradox of consensual demonstration.

It dates back to the International Olympic Committee’s 1955 Charter, where prospective host cities were instructed to explicitly state their opposition to political demonstrations. While this rule clearly focused on the responsibilities of the host city, the IOC changed the rule in the aftermath of the iconic Tommie Smith and John Carlos (and the less-well known Věra Čáslavská) demonstrations at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games, and other protests. In 1975, the IOC adopted a new rule in a section of the Charter titled “Advertising and Propaganda” that forbade all demonstrations or propaganda from Olympic areas.

More recently, following George Floyd’s murder and the growing prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the IOC’s sustained commitment to Rule 50 has been the subject of media scrutiny and ongoing conflict between those who want to preserve Rule 50 and those who want to abolish it. Fundamentally, this conflict is about rights — that is, who has what rights, who gets to decide, and under what conditions these decisions are made.

The IOC argue that they have a duty to preserve the neutrality of sport and keep politics out. In contrast, those who seek change point to Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression without interference “and regardless of frontiers.”

To settle matters, the IOC consulted over 3,000 athletes across National Olympic Committees (NOCs)and International Sport Federations. The IOC reported the majority of athletes want to keep the arenas and podiums free from demonstration.

The majority of NOCs maintained a somewhat neutral line, arguing for the need to permit demonstrations but not in arenas or on the podium. The NOCs of China, Russia, Slovakia and Lithuania submitted strong support for the preservation of Rule 50. However, the NOCs of the United States and New Zealand submitted unequivocal reasons for why the rule should be abolished, with the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee going as far as to permit demonstrations at its Olympic trials.

International sport is a network of overlapping decision centers that produces inconsistent rules across the system. For example, one decision center, such as international soccer, embraces demonstrations, whereas others, such as the IOC, prohibits them. Contradictions are also noteworthy, not only in the principles of Olympism and its commitment to equality, inclusion and fairness, but also the IOC’s statement about keeping sport free from politics, when both sport and the IOC are inherently political.

Finally, there is the issue of the extent to which fundamental freedoms should be subjected to authorization. The very act of negotiating changes to Rule 50 diminishes the purpose of demonstrating as a confrontation with power, rather than an approved activity or a cooperative act with the event’s governing authority.

Rule 50 will likely remain a source of conflict, a contest between athletes and the IOC, and as long as the IOC retains the self-appointed power to create and enforce rules limiting freedom of expression, there will be athletes who challenge the rules. 

Dr. Harris, an associate professor in the UCCS College of Business, specializes in topics related to international and Olympic sport governance.