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Get Up, Stand Up at the Olympics. A review of the IOC's policy towards political statements by Athletes. By Frédérique Faut

The Olympic Games are a universal moment of celebration of sporting excellence. But, attention is also quickly drawn to their dark side, such as environmental issues, human rights breaches and poor living conditions of people living near the Olympic sites. In comparison, however, little commentary space is devoted to the views of athletes, the people making the Olympics. This article tries to remediate this, by focussing on Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter which prevents athletes from freely expressing their (political) thoughts.  

Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter on advertising, demonstrations and propaganda states in paragraph 3 that: ‘No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas’. This rule is supplemented by Bye-law to Rule 50 paragraph 1, which foresees that: ‘No form of publicity or propaganda, commercial or otherwise, may appear on persons, on sportswear, accessories or, more generally, on any article of clothing or equipment whatsoever worn or used by the athletes or other participants in the Olympic Games, except for the identification (…) of the manufacturer of the article or equipment concerned, provided that such identification shall not be marked conspicuously for advertising purposes. Any violation of the provisions of the present clause may result in disqualification or withdrawal of the accreditation of the person concerned. The decisions of the IOC Executive Board regarding this matter shall be final’.[1] 

According to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which is responsible for the enforcement of the Olympic Charter, this rule warrants the spirit of the Olympic Games – i.e. promoting unity in diversity by bringing together a diverse range of competitors and spectators from all over the world –, the protection of the athletes and their ability to compete free from external distractions.[2]  

Although the underlying reasoning appears to be a very noble pursuit, questions might arise as to whether these goals can be reached when it is not clear, at least for an outsider and perhaps even for athletes, which situations and behaviours fall under the scope of political statement or propaganda and which not. In what way does the statement made by American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos who, during the Olympic Summer Games of 1968 in Mexico City, went on the medal stand without shoes and with beads while hanging their heads and raising their fists when the national anthem set in for instance differ from the rainbow glove worn by Dutch snowboarder Cheryl Maas during the Games in Sochi? Both cases concern athletes making a statement as part of a broader political debate: Smith and Carlos wanted to express their sympathy for the struggle against racial segregation in the US and abroad, whereas Cheryl Maas, one of the openly gay athletes, showed her disregard for Russian’s anti-gay law, a controversial issue at the Sochi Olympic Games. Surprisingly, both incidents were dealt with differently by the IOC: where Smith and Carlos were thrown off the team and sent home, the IOC allowed Cheryl Maas to make her point without being penalised, as was illustrated by the fact that she was able to compete in another event later that week. 

The IOC, in general, does not elaborate further as to the reasoning used when ruling on such cases and confines itself by stating that each case is dealt with individually depending on the specific facts.[3]  Surely, several reasons can be found why both cases are, and perhaps even have to be, treated differently – both incidents took place in different times; Tommie Smith and John Carlos were staying on the medal stand when they made their statement, whereas Cheryl Maas made hers in the qualifying rounds in front of a single camera; Tommie Smith and John Carlos criticised their own country (USA) at the Olympic Games held in another country (Mexico), whereas Cheryl Maas criticised the country organising the Games (Russia); Tommie Smith and John Carlos didn’t feel sorry for the statement made, whereas Cheryl Maas stated afterwards that she didn’t have the intention to make a statement. However, one may question whether such a policy based on a case-by-case approach ensures unity and legal certainty. In the current state of affairs, it is not possible to provide general legal guidance on how a case will be tackled by the IOC. The Olympic Games should be based on transparent and equal rules for everybody, a fundamental requirement of both sport and the law. Hence, it is high-time for the IOC to provide detailed rules and guidance on the policy applying to political statements made by athletes.

[1] Olympic Charter, in force as from 9 September 2013, accessible via 



[3] Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter: what you need to know as an athlete, accessible via 


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