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(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.

1.     Constructing the Political Neutrality of the Olympics

The roots of political neutrality in many ways can be traced back to the Olympic Truce, a tradition that started in Ancient Greece.[7] The idea of creating a temporal space where nations are at peace is in a way an attempt to separate Games from the political squabbles of the world, and this tradition has continued to the modern day.  Pierre de Coubertin envisioned a space ‘to bring the youth of all countries periodically together for amicable trials of muscular strength and agility’.[8] In accomplishing this goal, the Olympic Movement  applies a principle of political neutrality,[9] which includes that the IOC must ‘promote its political neutrality’,[10] ‘oppose any political or commercial abuse of sport and athletes’,[11] requires new members of the IOC to ‘act independently of commercial and political interests’,[12] and NOCs must ‘resist’ political pressures that ‘may prevent them from complying with the Olympic Charter’.[13] Lastly, international sport is deeply grounded in the idea of universality in which a sport, regardless of where it is played, is played by the same rules, meaning that the sport rules (the rules of the game) are not influenced by the politics or decisions of a particular state (i.e. sport autonomy).[14]

Coubertin also saw the Games as a ‘sacred enclosure’ for the athletes of the world,[15] symbolizing the conceptual genesis of the sanitized space within the modern Games. In these early days of the Games, Coubertin also believed that protecting the ‘sacred enclosure’ also meant keeping women out.[16] While women were first able to participate in the 1900 Olympic Games, albeit in a limited way and resistance to their participation continued,[17] politics remained a black sheep. Avery Brundage, IOC President (1952-1972), also persisted in advocating to keep women out of the Games but was especially a staunch defender of ‘two major Olympic ideals, i.e. amateurism and the non-politicisation of sport’.[18] For him it was not just necessary to keep politics out, but to also ‘actively combat the introduction of politics in the Olympic movement’ and was ‘adamant against the use of the Olympic Games as a tool or as a weapon by an organization’.[19] With Brundage leading the IOC, political neutrality was placed front and center and thus Olympic rules began to reflect this new priority. The 1956 Olympic Charter was the first to include the ‘Information for cities which desire to stage the Olympic Games’ which specifically required that invitations ‘must state that no political demonstrations will be held in the stadium or other sport grounds, or in the Olympic Village, during the Games, and that it is not the intention to use the Games for any other purpose than for the advancement of the Olympic Movement’. This would slowly evolve into the current Rule 50: ‘No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas’. It is interesting to note that the only earlier explicit mention of politics in the Olympic Charter was the 1946 Olympic Charter which was concerned by ‘the nationalization of sports for political aims’ where there would be ‘a national exultation of success achieved rather than the realization of the common and harmonious objective which is the essential Olympic law’.[20] As will be further elaborated in the second blog, it seems as though the IOC has now placed greater priority on enforcing Rule 50 compared to its rules concerning sport nationalism. All things considered, the IOC perceives and projects itself as a neutral entity, which is further confirmed through its governing rules[21] and even its seat in Switzerland further reflects this self-perception.[22]

2.     Failing to Keep Politics Out of the Games

At this point, it is worth exploring some examples that elucidate how politics have continually found a way into the ‘clean’ Olympic bubble through a variety of agents: be it the general public, the athletes, the IOC or states (both the host and participants).

While perhaps often overlooked when discussing politics in the Games, public protests are important to study, especially because there have been many instances of host nations suppressing such public gatherings. For example, in the 2008 Beijing Games, after great international pressure, the Chinese government had set specific zones for Olympic protests. However, protesters were required to submit an application and could be rejected if the protest would ‘harm national, social and collective interests or public order’. In the end, all seventy-seven applications were denied and some of those who applied were arrested, detained and/or put into forced labor.[23] Similarly, at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games, the IOC proudly welcomed the announcement of special protest areas, despite the fact the zones were placed ‘20 minutes by train from the nearest Olympic venue’ and ultimately only attracted a handful of protesters.[24]

Moreover, in the months leading to the Sochi Games, anti-LGBT laws were passed and a ‘crackdown on civil society unprecedented in the country’s post-Soviet history’ ensued. Despite these repressive measures, athletes stood defiant, and after the IOC made an exception to Rule 50 allowing political expression during press conferences, many athletes used this platform to take a stand.[25] This shows how athletes can sometimes be a critical source for political protest and dissent amidst an atmosphere of suppression, and history has repeatedly demonstrated how athletes can have a vital role in promoting human rights and raising awareness concerning sensitive issues. One simply has to point to the infamous moment when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the podium in protest or when Vera Caslavska turned her head away while the Soviet anthem played. There is little doubt that there has been an extensive history of athlete protest at the Games, and athletes will likely continue raising the problems close to their hearts irrespective of the restrictions they face.

Politics also permeate the Games through the IOC itself as it is continually faced with political decisions, including the recognition of national Olympic committees,[26] decisions concerning participation of athletes,[27] and the awarding of the Games to a city. The latter has often embroiled the Games in controversies, such as the Salt Lake City bid scandal in which a ‘Special US Senate commission found some 1,375 separate expenditures totaling nearly $3 million’ to try and ‘sway individual IOC members’.[28] The scandal prompted several internal investigations in which ten IOC members ‘either resigned or were expelled’. The current Tokyo Games have not been without controversy as a Japanese businessman admitted to giving gifts to IOC members while lobbying for the Games after having received $8.2 million dollars from the Tokyo bid committee. Taken together, it could be argued that this is a real source of ‘dirty’ politics and a greater threat to the concept of a clean or ‘sacred’ space for the Games. Finally, you’ll find a lot of politics inside the IOC, where some commentators have described the rise to power of IOC Presidents as resembling ‘the ascent of a conventional politician’.[29]

Lastly, countries participating and hosting the Games are also able to introduce politics to the Games through boycotts,[30] hosting the Games to promote internal and geo-political interests, and using one’s performance at the Games for political gain and geo-political posturing. Concerning the first, a decision to boycott is always tied to some political goal, as a boycott usually seeks to instigate political change or send a specific political message, such as disapproval of certain political decisions or even an entire political system. For instance, the 1980 Moscow Olympics had 60 countries, led by the US, boycotting the Games in response to the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan.[31] Indeed, this kind of political wrangling and posturing heavily plagued the Cold War period. It was also during this time that the ‘Soviet Union and the United States attempted to proclaim the superiority of their political and socioeconomic systems by winning the most Olympic gold medals’.[32] A country’s performance at the Games became an indication of one’s geo-political power status, and the idea that ‘sport for sport’s sake is not a goal; rather it is the means to obtaining other goals’ gained more traction. [33] It could be argued that this trend started even before the Cold War. For instance, at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the Nazis were obsessed with trying to demonstrate ‘German superiority’, which included the incredibly calculated efforts to make the Games into a propaganda spectacle.[34] In this sense, hosting the Games is a unique way to boost a nation’s image and send political messages on a world stage as a sort of ‘soft power strategy’.[35] This kind of sport nationalism is pure politics, and the IOC has long recognized it, as first enshrined in the 1946 Olympic Charter, as a threat to the fundamental goals of the Olympic Games.

3.     Conclusion

Despite the IOC’s attempts to create a ‘clean’ apolitical bubble, politics are structurally embedded within the Games due to the array of actors representing a variety of interests that are involved in its planning and execution. In this sense, the Games can never truly take place within an impenetrable bubble that is somehow separated from the societal context in which it takes place.  The ‘opposite assumptions, that sport was both “above and below” the political dimensions of social life’ is simply untenable.[36] In spite of this, the IOC maintains strict restrictions, through Rule 50, on the free speech of athletes and of the fans and continues to pedal the myth of a pure and sanitized Olympic Games. Instead, I believe political expression should not be regarded as a sly specter infiltrating itself within the Games, defiling the ‘sacred enclosure’ but rather something innate to any free society. Perhaps, in the end, a more genuine ‘mutual respect’ could be achieved if individuals were authorized to openly express their identity and convictions without fear of reprisal even in the face of deep rooted differences.[37]  Regardless, politics and the Games remain naturally entangled, and the next blog in this series will unravel the double standard of the IOC when addressing sport nationalism and athletes’ political expression at the Games.

[1] For many years, amateurism was a key criterion in order to participate in the Olympics.

[2] See my recent blog on Rule 40 Olympic Charter.

[3] Richard Pound also views the idea of the Games as a sort of ‘bubble’ in which the Games create ‘ a special phenomenon during which, even if the world as a whole is not working well, there is an oasis at which the youth of the world can gather for peaceful competition, free from the tensions which their elders have created and with which they will be required to cope before and after the Games’ (emphasis added).

[4] The full quote is as follows: ‘First, this is not a new rule and, second, it is one wholly consistent with the underlying context of the Olympic Games, during which politics, religion, race and sexual orientation are set aside.’ Richard Pound, ‘Free Speech for Olympic Athletes’ (IOC, 11 February 2020) <> accessed 1 April 2020.

[5] See book written by Richard Pound, ‘Inside the Olympics: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Politics, the Scandals and the Glory of the Games’ (Wiley 2006).

[6] Rule 6 Olympic Charter.

[7] Although the extent of this truce is disputed. See Kristine Toohey and Anthony James Veal, The Olympic Games: A Social Science Perspective (CAB International 2007) 19-20.

[8] ‘Peace Through Sport’ (IOC) <> accessed 1 April 2020.

[9] Fundamental Principles of Olympism, Olympic Charter, point 5.

[10] Rule 2 Olympic Charter.

[11] ibid.

[12] Rule 16 Olympic Charter.

[13] Rule 27 Olympic Charter.

[14] Christopher H Hill, Olympic Politics (Manchester University Press 1996).

[15] Jules Boykoff, Power Games: A Political History of the Olympic Games (Verso 2016) 13.

[16] ‘The Olympic Games must be reserved for men’ – Coubertin quoted in Boykoff (n 15) 17; ‘as to the admission of women to the Games, I remain strongly against it’ – Coubertin quoted in Dikaia Chatziefstathiou and Ian P. Henry, Discourses of Olympism: From the Sorbonne 1894 to London 2012 (Springer 2012) 124.

[17] Boykoff (n 15) 59.

[18] ‘Avery Brundage’ (IOC 2011) <> accessed 1 April 2020.

[19] Boykoff (n 15) 83.

[20] This was also one of Brundage’s greatest concerns. Boykoff (n 15) 84.

[21] See Rule 2 (5) and (11) Olympic Charter and Rule 16 (1.3) Olympic Charter.

[22] See why Lausanne hosts so much of the Olympic Movement: Rebecca Ruiz, ‘Swiss City Is ‘the Silicon Valley of Sports’’ (The New York Times, 22 April 2016) <> accessed 1 April 2020.

[23] Boykoff (n 15) 170; See also ‘China: Police Detain Would-Be Olympic Protesters’ (Human Rights Watch, 13 August 2008) <> accessed 1 April 2020.

[24] It is also worth noting that of the two protests, one concerned the difficulties Russians faced who were born into World War Two, and the other was a pro-Putin demonstration. On the protest zone see also David Herszenhorn, ‘A Russian Protest Zone Where Almost No One Registers a Complaint’ (The New York Times, 13 February 2014) <> accessed 1 April 2020.

[25] Boykoff (n 15) 204.

[26] Hill (n 14) 36. For example, concerning the recognition and naming of the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee.

[27] For example, decisions that affect participation of transgender and intersex athletes definitely have a political element. Simply by taking into account the discrepancy in jurisdictions concerning gender identity, the guidelines acknowledge the international political context in which the guidelines operate. See point 1 (b).

[28] Boykoff (n 15) 151.

[29] Hill (n 14) 2 and 60.

[30] Boykoff (n 15) 128.

[31] ibid 127-128.

[32] Andrew Strenk, ‘What Price Victory? The World of International Sports and Politics’ [1979] 445 The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 128; James Nafziger, 'International Sports Law: A Replay of Characteristics and Trends’ [1992] 86 The American Journal of International Law 489; J. Weston Phippen, ‘The Olympics Have Always Been Political’ (The Atlantic, 28 July 2016) <> accessed 1 April 2020; Boykoff (n 15) 82.

[33] Quoting Erich Honnecker (GDR’s head of state - 1971-1989), Strenk (n 31).

[34] Boykoff (n 15) 69.

[35] Jonathan Grix, ‘Sport Politics and the Olympics’ [2013] 11 Political Studies Review 15.

[36] Lincoln Allison, The Changing Politics of Sport (Manchester University Press 1993) 5.

[37] ‘Rule 50 is a reminder that, at the Olympic Games, restraint is an element of that mutual respect.’ Pound (n 4).

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