Asser International Sports Law Blog

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The Asser International Sports Law Centre is part of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

(A)Political Games? Ubiquitous Nationalism and the IOC’s Hypocrisy

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a L.LM. candidate in the European Law programme at Utrecht University and a former intern of the Asser International Sports Law Centre

 

1.     Sport Nationalism is Politics

Despite all efforts, the Olympic Games has been and will be immersed in politics. Attempts to shield the Games from social and political realities are almost sure to miss their mark and potentially risk being disproportionate. Moreover, history has laid bare the shortcomings of the attempts to create a sanitized and impenetrable bubble around the Games. The first blog of this series examined the idea of the Games as a sanitized space and dived into the history of political neutrality within the Olympic Movement to unravel the irony that while the IOC aims to keep the Olympic Games ‘clean’ of any politics within its ‘sacred enclosure’, the IOC and the Games itself are largely enveloped in politics. Politics seep into the cracks of this ‘sanitized’ space through: (1) public protests (and their suppression by authoritarian regimes hosting the Games), (2) athletes who use their public image to take a political stand, (3) the IOC who takes decisions on recognizing national Olympic Committees (NOCs) and awarding the Games to countries,[1] and (4) states that use the Games for geo-political posturing.[2] With this background in mind, the aim now is to illustrate the disparity between the IOC’s stance on political neutrality when it concerns athlete protest versus sport nationalism, which also is a form of politics.

As was mentioned in part one of this series, the very first explicit mention of politics in the Olympic Charter was in its 1946 version and aimed to combat ‘the nationalization of sports for political aims’ by preventing ‘a national exultation of success achieved rather than the realization of the common and harmonious objective which is the essential Olympic law’ (emphasis added). This sentiment was further echoed some years later by Avery Brundage (IOC President (1952-1972)) when he declared: ‘The Games are not, and must not become, a contest between nations, which would be entirely contrary to the spirit of the Olympic Movement and would surely lead to disaster’.[3] Regardless of this vision to prevent sport nationalism engulfing the Games and its codification in the Olympic Charter, the current reality paints quite a different picture. One simply has to look at the mass obsession with medal tables during the Olympic Games and its amplification not only by the media but even by members of the Olympic Movement.[4] This is further exacerbated when the achievements of athletes are used for domestic political gain[5] or when they are used to glorify a nation’s prowess on the global stage or to stir nationalism within a populace[6]. Sport nationalism is politics. Arguably, even the worship of national imagery during the Games from the opening ceremony to the medal ceremonies cannot be depoliticized.[7] In many ways, the IOC has turned a blind eye to the politics rooted in these expressions of sport nationalism and instead has focused its energy to sterilize its Olympic spaces and stifle political expression from athletes. One of the ways the IOC has ignored sport nationalism is through its tacit acceptance of medal tables although they are expressly banned by the Olympic Charter.

At this point, the rules restricting athletes’ political protest and those concerning sport nationalism, particularly in terms of medal tables, will be scrutinized in order to highlight the enforcement gap between the two. More...


(A)Political Games: A Critical History of Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter - By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a fourth year LL.B. candidate at the International and European Law programme at The Hague University of Applied Sciences with a specialisation in European Law. Currently he is pursuing an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on International and European Sports Law.

 

Since its inception, the Olympic Movement, and in particular the IOC, has tirelessly endeavored to create a clean bubble around sport events, protecting its hallowed grounds from any perceived impurities. Some of these perceived ‘contaminants’ have eventually been accepted as a necessary part of sport over time (e.g. professionalism in sport),[1] while others are still strictly shunned (e.g. political protest and manifestations) and new ones have gained importance over the years (e.g. protection of intellectual property rights). The IOC has adopted a variety of legal mechanisms and measures to defend this sanitized space.  For instance, the IOC has led massive efforts to protect its and its partners’ intellectual property rights through campaigns against ambush marketing (e.g. ‘clean venues’ and minimizing the athletes’ ability to represent their personal sponsors[2]). Nowadays, the idea of the clean bubble is further reinforced through the colossal security operations created to protect the Olympic sites.

Nevertheless, politics, and in particular political protest, has long been regarded as one of the greatest threats to this sanitized space. More recently, politics has resurfaced in the context of the IOC Athletes’ Commission Rule 50 Guidelines. Although Rule 50 is nothing new, the Guidelines stirred considerable criticism, to which Richard Pound personally responded, arguing that Rule 50 is a rule encouraging ‘mutual respect’ through ‘restraint’ with the aim of using sport ‘to bring people together’.[3] In this regard, the Olympic Charter aims to avoid ‘vengeance, especially misguided vengeance’. These statements seem to endorse a view that one’s expression of their political beliefs at the Games is something that will inherently divide people and damage ‘mutual respect’. Thus, the question naturally arises: can the world only get along if ‘politics, religion, race and sexual orientation are set aside’?[4] Should one’s politics, personal belief and identity be considered so unholy that they must be left at the doorstep of the Games in the name of depoliticization and of the protection of the Games’ sanitized bubble? Moreover, is it even possible to separate politics and sport?  

Even Richard Pound would likely agree that politics and sport are at least to a certain degree bound to be intermingled.[5] However, numerous commentators have gone further and expressed their skepticism to the view that athletes should be limited in their freedom of expression during the Games (see here, here and here). Overall, the arguments made by these commentators have pointed out the hypocrisy that while the Games are bathed in politics, athletes – though without their labor there would be no Games – are severely restrained in expressing their own political beliefs. Additionally, they often bring attention to how some of the most iconic moments in the Games history are those where athletes took a stand on a political issue, often stirring significant controversy at the time. Nevertheless, what has not been fully explored is the relationship between the Olympic Games and politics in terms of the divide between the ideals of international unity enshrined in the Olympic Charter and on the other hand the de facto embrace of country versus country competition in the Olympic Games. While the Olympic Charter frames the Games as ‘competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries’, the reality is far from this ideal.[6] Sport nationalism in this context can be considered as a form of politics because a country’s opportunity to host and perform well at the Games is frequently used to validate its global prowess and stature.

To explore this issue, this first blog will first take a historical approach by investigating the origins of political neutrality in sport followed by an examination of the clash between the ideal of political neutrality and the reality that politics permeate many facets of the Olympic Games. It will be argued that overall there has been a failure to separate politics and the Games but that this failure was inevitable and should not be automatically viewed negatively. The second blog will then dive into the Olympic Charter’s legal mechanisms that attempt to enforce political neutrality and minimize sport nationalism, which also is a form of politics. It will attempt to compare and contrast the IOC’s approach to political expression when exercised by the athletes with its treatment of widespread sport nationalism.More...