Articles & Publications
Human Rights and Olympic Movement
Let’s begin by addressing the question of What do we mean by “Human Rights”. A good place to start is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly 10 December 1948.
Human rights means freedom from arbitrary arrest and freedom from torture. Human rights means the right to a fair trial held in public with the accused being considered innocent until proven guilty. Human rights means the right to practice the religion of your choice. It means the right to gather together in groups. It means the right to criticize the policies of your government without fear of retribution. Human rights means the right to own property. It means the right to move freely within your own country and to travel abroad and return without punishment. Human rights means freedom from forced labour and from slavery. Human rights means equal rights regardless of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation and no forced marriage. Human rights means equal pay for equal work for all people regardless of gender or race or religion. It means the right to form and join labour unions. Human rights means the right to free education, at least for children, and freedom from child labour.
Imagine, if you will, a world in which all people in every nation enjoyed all of these human rights.
Now let’s apply these human rights to the Olympic Movement. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other components of the Olympic Movement, including International Sports Federations, National Olympic Committees and the International Paralympic Committee, face a moral dilemma not unlike that faced by the United Nations. The IOC is committed to providing sporting opportunities to athletes of all nations. In order to honour this commitment, the IOC is forced to accept governments that clearly violate human rights. Throughout its history, the IOC has responded to this conflict between inclusion and human rights in a variety of ways.
The most famous instance of the IOC confronting human rights violations came in 1936 when the Games were held in Berlin. By the beginning of 1936, it was well-known that the Nazi government was imprisoning Jews, Gypsies (Roma and Sinti), homosexuals, homeless citizens, political opponents and Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others. Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom to own property had all been suppressed, as had many other forms of human rights. Despite calls to move the Games or to boycott them, the IOC, under the leadership of Avery Brundage, went ahead with the Berlin Olympics and allowed Adolf Hitler to use them to spread racial propaganda.
Another famous case occurred in 1968, when the Olympics were held in Mexico City. Ten days before the Opening Ceremony, Mexican government troops opened fire on a peaceful protest of several thousand students, killing at least 250 citizens. The IOC deemed this a domestic problem unrelated to the Olympics and did not condemn the massacre. Yet two weeks later, when African-American sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos staged a nonviolent protest during the award ceremony for the 200 metres, the IOC pressured the U.S. Olympic Committee into ordering Smith and Carlos to leave the Olympic Village and the country.
However, when pressured, the IOC sometimes does rise to the occasion. In January 1964, the IOC banned South Africa because of its racist Apartheid policies. The IOC tried to reinstate the country, but they banned South Africa again in 1968 and finally expelled the country from the Olympic Movement in May 1970. South African athletes ended up missing seven Summer Olympic Games. After Apartheid ended, South Africa was welcomed back into the Olympic Movement in July 1991.
Although South African athletes participated in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the IOC chose to use a different tactic to punish the government of another human rights abuser: Yugoslavia. Under IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, the IOC ruled that Yugoslavia could not enter team sports, but that individual athletes from Serbia and Montenegro could compete under the Olympic flag as “Individual Olympic Participants.”
The IOC awards the honour of the Olympic Order to people who have contributed significantly to the Olympic Movement. Some of these recipients have been extreme violators of human rights. In 1984, the Olympic Order in Gold was awarded to Nicolae Ceauşescu despite the fact that he and his regime practiced torture, imprisoned political opponents, suppressed the right to freedom of expression, the right to fair trial and the right to leave Romania and allowed more than 100,000 orphaned children to live in shockingly abusive conditions. That same year, the IOC awarded the same Olympic Order to Erich Honecker of East Germany, who had personally ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall and approved the murder of citizens who tried to leave the country. The IOC subsequently presented the Olympic Order in Gold to Kenan Evren (1987), who oversaw the torture and murder of prisoners in Turkey; Todor Zhivkov (1987), the dictator of Bulgaria, who brutally eliminated the rights of ethnic Turks and forced more than 300,000 of them into exile; Robert Mugabe (1995), who had ordered the massacre of thousands of Zimbabwe’s citizens; Islam Karimov (1996), who, among other things, controlled the judicial and legislative systems in Uzbekistan and pushed through a law that made it illegal to criticize him; Omar Bongo (1997), the dictator of Gabon, whose security forces beat and tortured prisoners; Nursultan Nazarbayev (1997), who
committed widespread human rights abuses during his 29 years as dictator of Kazakhstan; Vladimir Putin (2001), whose regime in Russia has committed systematic torture and suppressed the rights of children, homosexuals, political opponents and ethnic minorities; Liu Qi (2008), the head of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the 2008 Summer Olympics, who, as mayor of Beijing, was responsible for the arbitrary detention and torture of political prisoners; and Xi Jinping (2013), whose government in China routinely restricts freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to a fair trial and the right to be protected from torture. The abuses of each of these men were known at the time the IOC awarded them the Olympic Order in Gold.
As recently as 2019, IOC President Thomas Bach presented Henry Kissinger of the United States with the IOC President’s Trophy, Kissinger having been an Honour Member of the IOC since 2002. For those who are not familiar with Kissinger’s record, he was National Security Advisor and Secretary of State during the presidential administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
He aggressively advocated for a military coup to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile and encouraged the use of the CIA to get it done. He dismissed the human rights concerns expressed by other members of the U.S. government and fully supported the dictator of Chile, General Augusto Pinochet. After Pakistan invaded Bangladesh in 1971, at the height of the mass murder that claimed the lives of at least 300,000 civilians, Kissinger sent a message to the Pakistani dictator, General Yahya Khan, praising him for his “delicacy and tact.” In 1973, Kissinger said “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern.” It wasn’t until 37 years later that Kissinger apologised for this statement and only because a tape of him saying this was made public. Kissinger supported the Indonesian invasion of East Timor and the massacre of civilians. As Kissinger said in 1975, “I hold the strong view that human rights are not appropriate in a foreign policy context.” Despite Kissinger’s horrible record as an abuser of human rights, it was just last year that the IOC awarded him with a special honour.
The 2008 Summer Olympics were awarded to Beijing despite the Chinese government’s abysmal human rights record. Despite pledges made to the IOC, the Chinese government restricted the work of journalists covering the Games and despite the IOC’s insistence that the Chinese allow protest zones, none of the 77 applicants for a protest permit were allowed to go ahead. Not only did the IOC not act against the Chinese government, but, just seven years later, it awarded Beijing the 2022 Winter Olympics.
When the 2014 Winter Games were held in Russia, there was a great deal of media coverage of the Putin government’s passage of an anti-homosexual law. Less known is how the Russian government sanitised the Olympic zones by keeping out anyone they didn’t like. Even if a Russian citizen had purchased tickets to attend the Sochi Games, he or she had to obtain an “Olympic passport” to enter the area near the Olympics, and these passports were denied to those whom the Putin government considered “undesirable”.
In December 2014, the IOC attempted to deal with similar human rights problems by insisting that contracts with host cities include clauses to respect the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and international labour laws and to uphold press freedom, labour rights and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. However, once preparations for the Games are under way, the IOC has little leverage to punish a host city for violating these agreements. Because of the massive commercial preparations, moving the host city is out of the question. Although the IOC’s sentiments are admirable, in practice if, for example, the Chinese government in 2022 were to impose the same restrictions and abuses of human rights that they carried out in 2008, there would be nothing the IOC could do about it.
Let’s look at an issue that is currently roiling the Olympic world: the right of athletes to express political positions at the Olympics. Here again, the IOC finds itself in a difficult position, caught between athletes, moved by various injustices, wanting to make gestures or statements, and the Olympic Movement’s commitment to create a place where differences can be set aside and athletes can come together despite their differences.
In January 2020, the IOC issued specific guidelines relating to where and when athletes will be prohibited from expressing political views during upcoming Games.
The current rules will prohibit protests and demonstrations at an Olympic venue, in the Athletes’ Village and during official ceremonies, including the awarding of medals. Athletes will be allowed to express their political views during press conferences and interviews and at the International Broadcasting Centre and the Main Media Centre, as well as on digital and traditional media. The new guidelines are a bit vague about distinguishing between “protests and demonstrations” [bad] and “expressing views” [not so bad]. Specific examples of forbidden messaging include signs, armbands, gestures such as kneeling and refusal to respect Ceremonies protocol.
In light if these new rules, it is worth taking a look at the history of athletes making political statements at the Games, how they were treated at the time and how these protests would be treated under today’s rules. Surprising as it may seem, although there have been few political protests by athletes (as opposed to judging protests, which are frequent), they do go back to the early years of the modern Olympics.
The first protest took place at the 1906 Intercalated Games in Athens. Irish athletes were angry that they were listed as competing for Great Britain. When Peter O’Connor earned the silver medal in the long jump, the British Union Jack was raised in his honour. This was too much for O’Connor. While Irish teammate Con Leahy stood guard on the ground, O’Connor climbed the flag pole and unfurled a green Irish flag. His protest went unpunished, but according to the 2020 guidelines, he would be sanctioned by the IOC.
A similar anti-foreign occupation protest happened at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Koreans Sohn Kee-chung and Nam Seung-yong finished first and third in the marathon. But because Japanese troops were occupying Korea, Sohn and Nam were forced to compete for Japan, wearing Japanese uniforms and using Japanese names. At the medal ceremony, they bowed their heads during the raising of the Japanese flag and the playing of the Japanese national anthem. Interviewed by the press afterwards, Sohn used the opportunity to educate the world about the plight of his nation. Presumably, if a similar incident occurred in 2020, Sohn would have been allowed to make his statements to the media, as he was in 1936. However, it is unclear if, by today’s standards, the fact that Sohn and Nam bowed their heads would be considered a breach of Ceremonies protocol. At the Berlin Games, it was not.
The most famous example of athlete protests took place at the 1968 Mexico City Games, when U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, having placed first and third at 200 meters, staged a dramatic, non-violent protest at the medal ceremony. Mounting the dais barefooted, they wore civil rights badges, as did silver-medal winner Peter Norman of Australia, who asked to join Smith and Carlos in their protest. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck and Carlos a string of beads as a memorial to those blacks who had been lynched. When “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played, Smith and Carlos bowed theirheads, and each raised one blackg-loved hand in the Black Power salute. They later explained that their clenched fists symbolised black strength and unity and that their bare feet were a reminder of black poverty in the United States. They bowed their heads to express their belief that the words of freedom in the U.S. national anthem only applied to Americans with white skin. The IOC demanded that the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) ban Smith and Carlos from further Olympic competition (i.e. the relays) and expel them from the Olympic Village. The USOC refused. The next morning the IOC told the USOC that if Smith and Carlos were not banned and expelled, the entire USA track and field team would be barred from competition. This time the USOC complied. Although Smith and Carlos’ protest would ultimately earn them worldwide praise, the IOC’s response would be exactly the same today as it was in 1968.
This was not the only protest at the Mexico City Olympics. When gymnasts Vera Čáslavská of Czechoslovakia and Larisa Petrik of the Soviet Union shared first place in the floor exercises event, two months after the Soviet army invaded Czechoslovakia, Čáslavská bowed her head during the playing of the Soviet national anthem. Unlike Smith and Carlos, her silent protest went unpunished.
At the 2000 Sydney Games, when Cathy Freeman took her victory lap after winning the 400 metres, she held aloft both the Australian flag and the Aboriginal flag. Such a gesture would, presumably, be forbidden according to today’s IOC rules.
At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the silver medal winner in the marathon was Feyisa Lilesa of Ethiopia. As he approached and crossed the finish line, he clenched his fists and crossed his forearms in the X shape that had become the symbol of support for the Oromo people, hundreds of whom had been killed by the Ethiopian government. Lilesa repeated the gesture at the post-race press conference, explaining, “The Ethiopian government is killing my people, so I stand with all protests anywhere, as Oromo is my tribe. My relatives are in prison, and if they talk about democratic rights they are killed.” Although his gesture at the finish line was against the IOC rules at the time, as it is today, IOC President Thomas Bach presented Lilesa with his award at the medal ceremony and told him not to worry about consequences. It is doubtful that such an exception would be made again.
Finally, there is the unusual case of German cyclist Judith Arndt, who earned the silver medal in the road race at the 2004 Athens Olympics. As she crossed the finish line, she made an obscene gesture. In post-race interviews, Arndt explained that she was protesting the German cycling federation’s treatment of her partner, 1992 pursuit champion Petra Rossner, who was not selected for the 2004 team. The International Cycling Union fined Arndt 200 Swiss Francs for her “one-fingered salute”. It is unclear whether her gesture would be considered a violation of the current rules.
There is one more intriguing aspect to the dilemma concerning permitting or prohibiting protests. Some athletes say that although they appreciate the prohibition against political protests, racism is not a political issue. Fundamental Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter opposes discrimination based on race. Thus, say these athletes, taking a knee as a gesture of anti-racism should not be considered a political protest, but one that supports one of the basic values of the Olympic Movement.
Articles & Publications
Articles & Publications