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The Olympic Movement and its Responsibility  for Human Rights


The Olympic Movement and its Responsibility  for Human Rights

1. The Olympic Movement in Light of Human Rights

According to the Charter of the International Olympic Committee, Olympism is a particular way of looking on life which unites and exceeds physical and mental abilities in a balanced totality. By connecting sport with culture and education Olympism aims at bringing about a life style based on joy of physical effort, on the educational value of good examples, and on the respect for fundamental and universally valid ethical principles. The aim of Olympism is therefore to use sport for a harmonic, human development all over the world in order to support the creation of a peace-loving society that feels obliged to protect human dignity.

Following this purpose the Olympic Movement is involved –on its own or in cooperation with other institutions– in peace-promoting events as much as possible. Those aims resulting from modern Olympism and which need to be pursued by the Olympic Movement are laid down in the Charter.

The Olympic Movement aims at making a contribution to the creation of a peaceful and better world by using sport to educate young people. Any form of discrimination is renounced in each Olympic sport and each sport will be performed under the Olympic spirit. That is to say that reciprocal understanding and the spirit of friendship, of solidarity, and of fair-play are placed in the centre of attention. The effort of the Olympic Movement is intended to work lastingly and globally. According to the Charter of the IOC, physical activity is a human right – each human being needs to have the opportunity to do sport fitting his or her needs.

In the IOC’s fundamental principles, laid down in its Charter, the topic “human rights” is referred to thrice. First, Olympism aims at protecting human dignity and moreover is even obliged to do so. Second, the Olympic Movement commits to fighting against any form of discrimination. Third, the Charter directly refers to the Charter of Human Rights by defining sport and physical activity as a human right, implying that it must be made possible for everyone to do sports according to his or her needs.

On the basis of the Olympic Charter, it follows that one has to ask, which role the Olympic Movement has played in establishing human rights in the past, whether the Olympic Movement has to fulfil a special task nowadays and whether it has to take special responsibility for the implementation of the human rights.

If one wants to answer this question, it is, first of all, necessary to pay attention to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, that is to say, one needs to look at those human rights which are wished to be implemented all over the world. Secondly, one has to investigate which values are postulated by the Olympic Movement itself, which values are expressed during Olympic Games and which values are set as an example by athletes and sport officials. Thirdly, one can answer the question to what extent a modern Olympic value structure can contribute to a lasting protection of human rights and how far sport contributes to the implementation of human rights.

2. The Declaration of Human Rights

The Declaration of Human Rights, as adopted in the General Assembly in December, 1948 can point at a long history and it is closely connected to ideas of Humanism and the Age of Enlightenment. Universality, equality and indivisibility are its central characteristics.

Universality requires the recognition of human rights and its validity for all people – each human being must therefore be obliged to respect the human rights of its fellow humans. The principle of equality implies that every human is equal before the law. It is not permitted to discriminate or favour someone because of his or her gender, origin, race, language, religion or political views.

The third principle, indivisibility, aims at always putting human rights into practice in their entirety. Thus, they are indivisible. The roots of the history of human right reach as far back as the ancient world. The Bible, with its idea of humanity as God’s image, functions as a historical foundation. In addition, the Koran is also seen as an important source. The original idea of human rights and their federal implementation, however, has been influenced by the Age of Enlightenment. Philosophers like John Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant are of particular significance in this matter. The Catalogue of Human Rights stands out due to a special hierarchy and axiomatic.

Human dignity is fundamental here and all other values can be derived from it.

The general Declaration of Human Rights by the General Assembly, on 10 December 1948, already comprised 30 human rights. Among these are:

• Human dignity

• Validity of these rights for all people in all countries and regions regardless of their international ranking

• Right to life, liberty and security

• Prohibition of slavery or servitude

• Prohibition of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

• Right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law

• Equality before the law

• Prohibition of arbitrary arrest, detention or exile

• Right to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal

• Guarantees founded on the rule of law

• Presumption of innocence

• No punishment without law

• Right to privacy

• Right to national and international freedom of movement and residence

• Right to asylum

• Right to nationality

• Right to get married

• Protection of the family

• Right to own property

• Right to freedom of thought, consciousness and religion

• Right to freedom of opinion and expression

• Right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association

• Right to take part in the government of his country

• Right to social security

• Right to work and to equal pay for equal work

• Right to rest and leisure and periodic holidays with pay

• Right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being

• Right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood or old age

• Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance

• Right to education

Finally, the collective rights of all peoples are stressed in article 28 of the Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized”. Only in 2010, the right to clean water has been raised to become a human right and added to the Declaration. We therefore need to take this catalogue of currently valid human rights and scrutinise it from a sport’s perspective in order to find a solution for our problem.

3. The Declaration as standing test for the Olympic Movement

In a second step, I would now like to take a closer look at the Olympic Movement’s ethical quality and mark all values shaping and characterizing the spirit of sport, according to the ideas of Olympism. First of all, one needs to mention three value patterns, which are by now used as marketing instruments by the IOC and which the IOC considers to be best in characterizing the ethical quality of Olympism. Excellence, Friendship and Respect are universal principles representing the pedagogical significance of Olympism.

Excellence refers to the guiding principle of Olympic sport. Athletes have to give their best, during competition and in life, they have to participate actively in competition and life, and they strive to improve their talents and to set goals for themselves.

Friendship points at the uniting characteristic of athletic competition, which is marked by reciprocal understanding of the partners despite all disagreements deriving from obvious reasons.

Respect is expressed in the maxim of fair-play. Athletes need to know their limits, they need to pay attention to their own health and also that of their opponents, and they are responsible for their environment.

By observing Olympic sport, by participating in several Olympic sports, and by studying its values I have come to notice that the list of values being able to influence the Olympic sport is guided above all by the fair-play principle. This principle is constitutive for the system of modern sport and disregarding it sport will threaten itself.

Closely related with this principle is the value of human dignity. Personal integrity and the opponent’s integrity are necessary conditions for Olympic sport to have an educational function, to assign the Olympic Movement a pedagogical quality, and to be regarded as a cultural value.

All other values are surely no less important, but nevertheless, I would like to rank them second in relation to the two maxims I just mentioned. In this respect, in my opinion, the following values are worth looking at: Respect of others, giving one’s best, teamwork, joy, hard work, self-discipline, self-esteem, tolerance towards people from different races or ethnic groups, patience, courage for new things, solidarity, tolerance towards different sexual orientations, competitiveness and the desire to win.

The value system available to Olympism, which could characterise it through an ethical viewpoint and which renders it significant through a pedagogical viewpoint, is remarkable. However, in the same manner in which the United Nations have only somewhat managed to establish human rights all over the world, Olympic sport seems to struggle with protecting its self-posited values in practice, with ensuring their effectiveness, and with carrying them out in the global world of Olympic sport.

If we look on the question of how far human rights are home in the world of Olympism and to what extent the IOC functions as a guardian for human rights, the answer is not as negative as often presumed and asserted by public opinion. Whoever watches athletes, referees, officials, journalists, the spectators and the Olympic public and observes how they gather for several weeks in one city to celebrate the Olympic Games will notice that the claimed personal rights are centre of attention and he or she will see that the Olympic Movement strives to grant the most possible freedom for personal rights. Freedom of thought, consciousness and religion, freedom of movement, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of opinion and expression, right to privacy, right to physical integrity and protection against torture only ever then become relevant topics of Olympic politics when the respective right is disregarded in the Olympic Movement. Again and again some freedom is questioned, like for example the freedom of opinion and expression, the freedom of movement or the freedom of assembly and information. Nevertheless, one needs to point out that the IOC is continuously working on helping every freedom to get its right. The right to self-determination, equality for men and women and the right to participation in cultural life are no less important rights the IOC stands up for. Looking at the whole Catalogue of Human Rights, it can be stated that the lasting support of human rights is one of the IOC’s programmatic aims, which the Olympic Movement feels primarily obliged to pursue.

4. The Values of the Olympic Movement in Light of Olympic Practice

The situation of the Olympic Movement’s own value system is less positive if one looks at the system in the same way one has looked on human rights. Let’s remember the Olympic Games of London or Beijing and consider the period from the opening to the closing ceremony from the viewpoint of athletes, coaches, referees, officials, journalists, spectators, and the public. There we can see that most of the values postulated are questioned in the practice of Olympism; that values can be substituted by contradictory values, and that especially the most basic principles, the fair-play principle and the integrity of human dignity, are seriously violated. Regarding the reality of sport in terms of its values, at first we can note, that the importance of these principles is still discerned by athletes, that the principles are still determinants for their actions, and that we can speak of a successful practice concerning their implementation. At the same time, we also need to realise that in practice more and more athletes act to the contrary: They show no respect for the rules, they lie when caught cheating, and they use illegal substances and methods to be at an advantage over the opponents. In training and in competitions risks threatening the health are taken, pain is reduced, and the body’s natural warning signals are deliberately suspended. Aggressive behaviour challenges fun and joy, instead of teamwork one can see egoism, referees are insulted, opponents are attacked verbally and physically, cheaters are covered up, cowardice prevents truth, racist and ethnical discrimination questions the value of friendship. Instead of fair-play one can too often see fraud, manipulation and corruption, instead of respect there is disdain for the opponents. Egoism impedes teamwork, excessive seriousness impedes joy, self-disdain threatens self-esteem, impatience replaces patience, courage for new things decreases, and solidarity among each other appears to be an alien concept.

To whoever has ears to hear and eyes to see, it becomes obvious that the Olympic values are not only threatened during the Olympic Games, but equally in all manifestations of modern sport. But how serious is this threat? This also raises the question of whether the situation has changed in the last few years. Moreover, it is arguable, which groups within different sport associations are affected the most by the threat. It is also necessary to differentiate between different sports and to raise the question of whether a distinction between genders needs to be made. According to available scientific findings, the Olympic values are threatened more seriously and more gravely than ever before. It is clearly necessary to detect the causes. The situation urgently demands a new commitment to come up with viable solutions.

If these observations hold true, the role the Olympic sport plays and can play in retaining and enforcing human rights is afflicted and even in danger. Sport, it appears, loses its ethical quality and its own foundation. Its relation with human rights becomes implausible and its socio-political significance diminishes. The Olympic sport is currently in a process marked by transformation during which the Olympic sport, instead of being a counter-image for modern society’s problems becomes an image of that society.

5. Where Are the Biggest Dangers Today?

Not all values are threatened equally. The values of sports can be ordered hierarchically. Within the system of sport, the principles of fair-play and integrity of athletes play the most important role. Both of them are threatened the most today, and the biggest danger is seen in the way these principles are dealt with in the world of sport. The idea of fair-play has been irreparably damaged by the competition frauds, long ago. This is revealed by the fact that although outstanding athletic performances are still highly popular as well as entertaining and therefore link the media and economy with sport, each outstanding performance always lies under suspicion of being fraudulent. Doubts about results, winners, and sometimes whole sports have increased to an extent that has never before existed in the history of modern sport.

A paradox situation has occurred. The spectators’ doubts about outstanding athletic performances rarely lead to a migration of spectators. It rather appears that this does not affect the entertaining function of sport negatively. The contrary seems to be the case; growing doubts become a constitutive part of the sport system. These doubts have become part of the entertaining quality of sport.

The one to suffer is the clean and honest athlete, who often needs to decide whether to go along with the fraud or not in order to still be able to compete with other athletes. If he or she sticks to the principles of fairness and honesty, he or she has no chance. In this sense modern high performance sport has become a trap for all athletes committed to the fair-play principle. Not only is the fair-play principle suspended then, it is also the integrity of the athlete which is disregarded when anything leading to spectacular performance becomes acceptable. Pain killers and performance enhancing substances are taken, even then, when they are known to be bad for one’s health in the short or in the long run and even the risk of death is accepted. One can observe a complete winning- mentality.

6. How Serious Is the Threat to Sport; Is It a Life-And-Death Issue?

The threat to sport through breaches of the rules, corruption, manipulation, and lies is more than obvious. However, it is not a life-and-death issue as it is still not a vital threat. On the contrary, sport has succeeded in making breaches of the rules socially acceptable. Connected to that, one can observe an interesting process. For more than 200 years, modern sport has been defined as a special cultural asset featuring a significant pedagogical quality. Based on its stipulated and recorded rules, its constitutive principles, and superior maxims, sport was considered to be a special world in which much was not allowed what had become customary in society. For several decades modern sport has undergone a transformation process, during which, above all, its identity has changed. It becomes more and more an image of society, giving up its special status in the process. Its connectivity to mass media, economy, politics, and other social subsystems, however, is stable or even increases. Hereby, the breaches of the rules lamented by custodians of fairplay remain without consequences. Cases of corruption, manipulation of athletic performance, pain killing, betting fraud, and lies do not have any consequences, neither in sport nor in society. Not until a change of views would happen in society itself and newly committed actions against the breaches of the values would be rewarded, one could talk about a threat to sport. In the situation we are right now, sport can profit more from the extensive breaches of the rules than it can be harmed.

7. Who Is Responsible?

The question of who is responsible should not only to be asked in relation to sport; it is rather the most important social question with regards to an encompassing irresponsibility. No one wants to take over responsibility for the problems in our society any more. We can observe a general looking-away. Everyone knows about the problems, but nobody wants to care about them. The little guy moans about his helplessness and the big guy just plays the game “Old Maid”. Responsibility is always expected of others and there are many good reasons to escape from it. Thus, officials can be sure to be re-elected despite the fact that they have grown rich, that they have rigged decisions, and that they have been caught lying. In criminal networks profits of billions can be generated. Athletes can deceive the doping control system together with their advisors. Betting fraud becomes a trifling offence and nobody is bothered when athletes caught doping act as idols for the youth. One consequence of this situation is that the fraud is beneficial to everyone involved, except to the clean athletes.

All in all, the question of who must take over responsibility can easily be answered. It is the athletes themselves who have not done anything so far for the protection of their own rights. It is the coaches to whom it should be an insult when athletes manipulate their performances with drugs. It is the officials who should stand up for the protection of the rules. It is the media and the economy and last but not least it is the political system, whose action is required. That is to say, everyone enjoying athletic performances is responsible. This means even the spectators and the public need to get involved.

8. What Can Athletes, Officials, Journalists, Managers, Sponsors and Politicians Do?

In view of the earlier described transformation process, in view of the exceptionally successful development of modern sport, and in view of the economic benefits to be generated with high-performance sport, changes aiming at newly adjusting sport, aiming at leading it to that ethical and moral quality which would be wished for from a pedagogical point of view are linked to major difficulties. Every person involved is facing a difficult decision setting the course. If the athlete decides for a clean performance, he or she has to reckon that disadvantages will outweigh advantages at first. If the official decides to commit him- or herself in favour of clean athletes, there is the risk of losing economically. If journalists stand up for a fair sport, this might affect the spectacle. Managers committing themselves to a clean sport will probably have to accept losses in their income. The same holds true for sponsors, who might miss out on spectacular, outstanding performances. Finally, politics will only to some extent be able to nationally represent itself with athletic top events. An either-or will not be possible in this setting of the course. Yes or no is the question and every single person is required to answer it. For such existential questions responsibility cannot be passed on. Every single one of us needs to act in his or her field of responsibility and it would be desirable if each one of us had to legitimise his or her actions in sport. The most important chance of further development of sport lies therefore in communicating about legitimisations. It will also be crucial that every one of us is ready to face the dangerous challenges within his or her area of responsibility.

The integrity of sport is threatened by corruption, bribery, betting fraud, money-laundering, doping, match fixing, result agreements, violence and aggression, unequal payment, vote-rigging, vote-buying, manipulation with regard to the placing of international competitions, blackmailing, compulsion, unequal sports equipment, manipulation of age and gender, espionage, financial irregularity, illegal technologies and transfers of young athletes (cf. figure 1).

Figure 1: Threats to the Integrity of Sport

But it is also the increasing inclusion in some sports, the almost limitless commercialization, the uncritical medal counting, the growing nationalism, the winning at all costs, the increasing disparity among the participating nations, and not last the threat to the Olympic Truce, these are all challenges one cannot escape from.

Similar to issues of political responsibility for political injustice, taking over definite responsibility for high-performance sport is a peculiar challenge.

We tend to think individualistically regarding responsibility. Thus, a single person is only responsible for that which can doubtlessly be followed back to him or her and not to others. However, the threats to sport have reached such a form and dimension that we also need to speak of a collective responsibility. This unfortunately leads to the situation in which no one feels responsible and no one can be held liable for anything. In my opinion, we need to take the collective as an acting subject seriously, but nevertheless it is the individual who is central in questions of responsibility. Responsibility in sport is not delegable. Each one of us is required to act in his or her field of responsibility.

DIGEL Helmut, "The Olympic Movement and its Responsibility  for Human Rights", in: K. Georgiadis(ed.), INTERNATIONAL OLYMPIC ACADEMY, 53th International Session for Young Participants (Ancient Olympia, 11-25/6/2013), International Olympic Academy, Athens, 2014, pp.64-75.

Article Author(s)

The Olympic Movement and its Responsibility  for Human Rights
Prof. Dr Helmut DIGEL
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Articles & Publications


Article Author(s)

The Olympic Movement and its Responsibility  for Human Rights
Prof. Dr Helmut DIGEL
Visit Author Page

Articles & Publications


Article Author(s)

The Olympic Movement and its Responsibility  for Human Rights
Prof. Dr Helmut DIGEL
Visit Author Page