Asser International Sports Law Blog

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

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – January 2018 - By Tomáš Grell

Editor's note: This report compiles all relevant news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. You are invited to complete this survey via the comments section below, feel free to add links to important cases, documents and articles we might have overlooked. 


The Headlines 

Anti-doping whereabouts requirements declared compatible with the athletes' right to privacy and family life

On 18 January 2018, the European Court of Human Rights rendered a judgment with important consequences for the world of sport in general and the anti-doping regime in particular. The Strasbourg-based court was called upon to decide whether the anti-doping whereabouts system – which requires that a limited number of top elite athletes provide their National Anti-Doping Organisation or International Federation with regular information about their location, including identifying for each day one specific 60-minute time slot where the athlete will be available for testing at a pre-determined location – is compatible with the athletes' right to private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and their freedom of movement pursuant to Article 2 Protocol No. 4 of the Convention. The case was brought by the French cyclist Jeannie Longo and five French athlete unions that had filed their application on behalf of 99 professional handball, football, rugby, and basketball players.

While acknowledging that the whereabouts requirements clash with the athletes' right to private and family life, the judges took the view that such a restriction is necessary in order to protect the health of athletes and ensure a level playing field in sports competitions. They held that ''the reduction or removal of the relevant obligations would lead to an increase in the dangers of doping for the health of sports professionals and of all those who practise sports, and would be at odds with the European and international consensus on the need for unannounced testing as part of doping control''. Accordingly, the judges found no violation of Article 8 of the Convention and, in a similar vein, ruled that Article 2 Protocol No. 4 of the Convention was not applicable to the case.

 

Football stakeholders preparing to crack down on agents' excessive fees

It has been a record-breaking January transfer window with Premier League clubs having spent an eye-watering £430 million on signing new acquisitions. These spiralling transfer fees enable football agents, nowadays also called intermediaries, to charge impressive sums for their services. However, this might soon no longer be the case as the main stakeholders in European football are preparing to take action. UEFA, FIFPro, the European Club Association and the European Professional Football Leagues acknowledge in their joint resolution that the 2015 FIFA Regulations on Working with Intermediaries failed to address serious concerns in relation to the activities of intermediaries/agents. They recognise in broad terms that a more effective regulatory framework is needed and call among other things for a reasonable and proportionate cap on fees for intermediaries/agents, enhanced transparency and accountability, or stronger provisions to protect minors.

 

The CAS award in Joseph Odartei Lamptey v. FIFA 

On 15 January 2018, FIFA published on its website an arbitral award delivered on 4 August 2017 by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in the dispute between the Ghanian football referee Joseph Odartei Lamptey and FIFA. The CAS sided with FIFA and dismissed the appeal filed by Mr Lamptey against an earlier decision of the FIFA Appeal Committee which (i) found him to have violated Article 69(1) of the FIFA Disciplinary Code as he unlawfully influenced the 2018 World Cup qualifying match between South Africa and Senegal that took place on 12 November 2016; (ii) as a consequence, banned him for life from taking part in any football-related activity; and (iii) ordered the match in question to be replayed. In reaching its conclusion, the CAS relied heavily on multiple reports of irregular betting activities that significantly deviated from usual market developments.  More...


Towards a Suitable Policy Framework for Cricket Betting in India - By Deeksha Malik

Editor's note: Deeksha Malik is a final-year student at National Law Institute University, India. Her main interest areas are corporate law, arbitration, and sports law. She can be reached at dkshmalik726@gmail.com.


In 2015, while interrogating cricketer Sreesanth and others accused in the IPL match-fixing case, Justice Neena Bansal, sitting as Additional Sessions Judge, made the following observations as regards betting on cricket matches.

“Cricket as a game of skill requires hand-eye-coordination for throwing, catching and hitting. It requires microscopic levels of precision and mental alertness for batsmen to find gaps or for bowlers to produce variety of styles of deliveries’ (medium pace, fast, inswing, outswing, offspin, legspin, googly). The sport requires strategic masterminds that can select the most efficient fielding positions for piling pressure on the batsmen. Based on above description, cricket cannot be described anything, but as a game of skill.”

The debate on the issue of betting in sports has since resurfaced and gained the attention of sportspersons, media, sports bodies, policymakers, and the general public. In April 2017, the Supreme Court bench comprising of Justices Dipak Misra and AM Khanwilkar agreed to hear a public interest litigation (PIL) seeking an order directing the government to come up with an appropriate framework for regulating betting in sports. The arguments put forth in the PIL present various dimensions. One of these pertains to economic considerations, a submission that regulated betting would be able to generate annual revenue of Rs. 12,000 crores by bringing the earnings therefrom within the tax net. As for policy considerations, it was submitted that a proper regulation in this area would enable the government to distinguish harmless betting from activities that impair the integrity of the game such as match-fixing. Further, betting on cricket matches largely depends on the skill of the concerned players, thereby distinguishing it from pure chance-based activities.

The issue of sports betting witnesses a divided opinion till this day. This is understandable, for both sides to the issue have equally pressing arguments. Aside from its regulation being a daunting task for authorities, sports betting is susceptible to corruption and other unscrupulous activities. At the same time, it is argued that it would be better for both the game and the economy if the same is legalised. More...


International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – December 2017. By Tomáš Grell

Editor's note: This report compiles all relevant news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. You are invited to complete this survey via the comments section below, feel free to add links to important cases, documents and articles we might have overlooked.

 

The Headlines 

The International Skating Union's eligibility rules declared incompatible with EU competition law

On 8 December 2017, the European Commission announced that it had rendered a decision in the case against the International Skating Union (ISU). The Commission upheld the complaint lodged in October 2015 by two Dutch professional speed skaters Mark Tuitert and Niels Kerstholt, represented in this case by Ben Van Rompuy and Antoine Duval (you can read their joint statement here), and ruled that the ISU's eligibility rules preventing athletes from participating in speed skating competitions not approved by the ISU under the threat of severe penalties are in violation of EU competition law. In particular, the Commission held that these rules restrict the commercial freedom of (i) athletes who may be deprived of additional source of income as they are not allowed to participate in speed skating competitions other than those authorised by the ISU; and (ii) independent organisers who are unable to attract top athletes. And while the Commission recognised that sporting rules with restrictive effects might be compatible with EU law if they pursue a legitimate objective such as the protection of athletes' health and safety or the protection of the integrity and proper conduct of sport, it found that the ISU's eligibility rules pursue only its own commercial interests to the detriment of athletes and independent organisers of speed skating competitions. The ISU eventually escaped financial sanctions, but it must modify or abolish its eligibility rules within 90 days; otherwise it would be liable for non-compliance payments of up to 5% of its average daily turnover. For more information on this topic, we invite you to read our recent blog written by Professor Stefano Bastianon.

 

The International Olympic Committee bans Russia from the upcoming Winter Olympic Games

The world has been waiting impatiently for the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) decision on the participation of Russian athletes in the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. This was finally communicated on 5 December 2017. Having deliberated on the findings of the Schmid Commission, the IOC Executive Board decided to suspend the Russian Olympic Committee with immediate effect, meaning that only those Russian athletes who demonstrate that they had not benefited from the state-sponsored doping programme will be able to participate in the Games. Such clean athletes will be allowed to compete under the Olympic Flag, bearing the name 'Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR)' on their uniforms. Further to this, the IOC Executive Board sanctioned several officials implicated in the manipulation of the anti-doping system in Russia, including Mr Vitaly Mutko, currently the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia and formerly the Minister of Sport. Mounting public pressure subsequently forced Mr Mutko to step down as head of the Local Organising Committee for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Meanwhile, 21 individual Russian athletes were sanctioned (see here, here, here, and here) in December (in addition to 22 athletes in November) by the IOC Oswald Commission that is tasked with investigating the alleged doping violations by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. The Oswald Commission also published two full decisions in the cases against Evgeny Belov and Aleksandr Tretiakov who were both banned from all future editions of the Games. It is now clear that the Court of Arbitration for Sport will have quite some work in the coming weeks as the banned athletes are turning to this Swiss-based arbitral tribunal to have their sanctions reviewed (see here and here).

 

Universal Declaration of Player Rights

14 December 2017 was a great day for athletes all over the globe. On this day, representatives of the world's leading player associations met in Washington D.C. to unveil the Universal Declaration of Player Rights, a landmark document developed under the aegis of the World Players Association that strives to protect athletes from ongoing and systemic human rights violations in global sport. The World Players Association's Executive Director Brendan Schwab emphasised that the current system of sports governance ''lacks legitimacy and fails to protect the very people who sit at the heart of sport'' and stated that ''athlete rights can no longer be ignored''. Among other rights, the Declaration recognises the right of athletes to equality of opportunity, fair and just working conditions, privacy and the protection of personal data, due process, or effective remedy.

 

Chris Froome failed a doping test during the last year's Vuelta a España

The world of cycling suffered yet another blow when it transpired that one of its superstars Chris Froome had failed a doping test during the last year's Vuelta a España, a race he had eventually emerged victorious from for the first time in his career. His urine sample collected on 7 September 2017 contained twice the amount of salbutamol, a medication used to treat asthma, than permissible under the World Anti-Doping Agency's 2017 Prohibited List. Kenyan-born Froome has now hired a team of medical and legal experts to put forward a convincing explanation for the abnormal levels of salbutamol in his urine and thus to avoid sanctions being imposed on him. More...

The ISU Commission's Decision and the Slippery Side of Eligibility Rules - By Stefano Bastianon (University of Bergamo)

Editor’s note: Stefano Bastianon is Associate Professor in European Law at the University of Bergamo and lawyer admitted to the Busto Arsizio bar. He is also member of the IVth Division of the High Court of Sport Justice (Collegio di Garanzia dello sport) at the National Olympic Committee.

1. From the very beginning, the outcome of the ISU case was highly predictable, at least for those who are familiar with the basics of antitrust law. Nevertheless, more than twenty years after the Bosman judgment, the sports sector has shown the same shortsightedness and inability to see the forest for the trees. Even this attitude was highly predictable, at least for those who know the basics of sports governance. The final result is a clear-cut decision capable of influencing the entire sports movement. More...



Human Rights as Selection Criteria in Bidding Regulations for Mega-Sporting Events – Part II: FIFA and Comparative Overview – By Tomáš Grell

The first part of this two-part blog examined the new bidding regulations adopted by the IOC and UEFA, and concluded that it is the latter who gives more weight to human rights in its host selection process. This second part completes the picture by looking at FIFA's bidding regulations for the 2026 World Cup. It goes on to discuss whether human rights now constitute a material factor in evaluating bids to host the mega-sporting events organised by these three sports governing bodies. More...

Human Rights as Selection Criteria in Bidding Regulations for Mega-Sporting Events – Part I: IOC and UEFA – By Tomáš Grell

Editor’s note: Tomáš Grell holds an LL.M. in Public International Law from Leiden University. He contributes to the work of the ASSER International Sports Law Centre as a research intern.


It has been more than seven years since the FIFA Executive Committee awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. And yet only in November 2017 did the Qatari government finally agree to dismantle the controversial kafala system, described by many as modern-day slavery. Meanwhile, hundreds of World Cup-related migrant workers have reportedly been exposed to a wide range of abusive practices such as false promises about the pay, passport confiscation, or appalling working and living conditions.[1] On top of that, some workers have paid the highest price – their life. To a certain extent, all this could have been avoided if human rights had been taken into account when evaluating the Qatari bid to host the tournament. In such a case, Qatar would not have won the bidding contest without providing a convincing explanation of how it intends to ensure that the country's poor human rights record will not affect individuals, including migrant workers, contributing to the delivery of the World Cup. An explicit commitment to abolish the kafala system could have formed an integral part of the bid.

Urged by Professor John Ruggie and his authoritative recommendations,[2] in October 2017 FIFA decided to include human rights within the criteria for evaluating bids to host the 2026 World Cup, following similar steps taken earlier this year by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and UEFA in the context of the Olympic Winter Games 2026 and the Euro 2024 respectively. This two-part blog critically examines the role human rights play in the new bidding regulations adopted by the IOC, UEFA, and FIFA. The first part sheds light on the IOC and UEFA. The second part then takes a closer look at FIFA and aims to use a comparative analysis to determine whether the new bidding regulations are robust enough to ensure that selected candidates abide by international human rights standards.More...


International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – November 2017. By Tomáš Grell

Editor's note: This report compiles all relevant news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. You are invited to complete this survey via the comments section below, feel free to add links to important cases, documents and articles we might have overlooked.

 

The Headlines

FIFA and FIFPro sign landmark agreement

A six-year cooperation agreement concluded between FIFA and FIFPro on 6 November 2017 puts an end to protracted negotiations which began after the latter had filed in September 2015 a complaint with the European Commission, challenging the validity of the FIFA transfer system under EU competition law. This agreement, together with an accord reached between FIFA, FIFPro, the European Club Association, and the World Leagues Forum under the umbrella of the FIFA Football Stakeholders Committee, should help streamline dispute resolution between players and clubs, avoid abusive practices in the world of football, or contribute to the growth of professional women's football. In addition, the FIFA Football Stakeholders Committee is now expected to establish a task force to study and conduct a broader review of the transfer system. As part of the deal, FIFPro agreed to withdraw its EU competition law complaint.

FIFA strengthens its human rights commitment amid reports of journalists getting arrested in Russia

It is fair to say that human rights have been at the forefront of FIFA's agenda in 2017. Following the establishment of the Human Rights Advisory Board in March and the adoption of the Human Rights Policy in June this year, in November FIFA published the bidding regulations for the 2026 World Cup. Under these new regulations, member associations bidding to host the final tournament shall, inter alia, commit themselves to respecting all internationally recognised human rights in line with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights or present a human rights strategy on how they intend to honour this commitment. Importantly, the human rights strategy must include a comprehensive report that is to be complemented and informed by a study elaborated by an independent expert organisation. Moreover, on 9 November 2017, the Human Rights Advisory Board published its first report in which it outlined several recommendations for FIFA on how to further strengthen its efforts to ensure respect for human rights.

While all these attempts to enhance human rights protection are no doubt praiseworthy, they have not yet produced the desired effect as reports of gross human rights abuses linked to FIFA's activities continue to emerge. Most recently, Human Rights Watch documented how Russian police arrested a newspaper editor and a human rights defender whose work focused on exposing World Cup-related corruption and exploitation of migrant construction workers. On a more positive note, a bit of hope comes with the announcement by a diverse coalition, including FIFA, UEFA, and the International Olympic Committee, of its intention to launch a new independent Centre for Sport and Human Rights in 2018.

More than 20 Russian athletes sanctioned by the Oswald Commission for anti-doping rule violations at the Sochi Games   

November has been a busy month for the International Olympic Committee, especially for its Oswald Commission. Established in July 2016 after the first part of the McLaren Independent Investigation Report had been published, the Oswald Commission is tasked with investigating the alleged doping violations by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Its first sanctions were handed down last month. As of 30 November 2017, the Commission chaired by the IOC Member Denis Oswald sanctioned 22 athletes (see here, here, here, here, here, and here) who competed at the Sochi Olympics in the following sports: biathlon, bobsleigh, cross country skiing, skeleton, and speed skating. The Commission published its first full decision on 27 November 2017 in the case against the cross country skier Alexander Legkov, a gold and silver medallist from the Sochi Olympics, who was ultimately banned for life from attending another Olympics.More...

Statement on the European Commission's ISU Decision by Ben Van Rompuy and Antoine Duval

Editor's note: We (Ben Van Rompuy and Antoine Duval) are at the origin of today's decision by the European Commission finding that the International Skating Union's eligibility rules are contrary to EU competition law. In 2014, we were both struck by the news that ISU threatened lifetime ban against speed skaters wishing to participate in the then projected Icederby competitions and convinced that it was running against the most fundamental principles of EU competition law. We got in touch with Mark and Niels and lodged on their behalf a complaint with the European Commission. Three years after we are pleased to see that the European Commission, and Commissioner Vestager in particular, fully embraced our arguments and we believe this decision will shift the tectonic structure of sports governance in favour of athletes for years to come.


Here is our official statement:

Today is a great day for Mark Tuitert and Niels Kerstholt, but more importantly for all European athletes. The European Commission did not only consider the International Skating Union's eligibility rules contrary to European law, it sent out a strong message to all international sports federations that the interests of those who are at the centre of sports, the athletes, should not be disregarded. This case was always about giving those that dedicate their lives to excelling in a sport a chance to compete and to earn a decent living. The majority of athletes are no superstars and struggle to make ends meet and it is for them that this decision can be a game-changer.

However, we want to stress that this case was never about threatening the International Skating Union’s role in regulating its sport. And we very much welcome the exceptional decision taken by the European Commission to refrain from imposing a fine which could have threatened the financial stability of the International Skating Union. The International Skating Union, and other sports federations, are reminded however that they cannot abuse their legitimate regulatory power to protect their economic interests to the detriment of the athletes.

We urge the International Skating Union to enter into negotiations with representatives of the skaters to devise eligibility rules which are respectful of the interests of both the athletes and their sport.

Since the summer of 2014, it has been our honour to stand alongside Mark and Niels in a 'David versus Goliath' like challenge to what we always perceived as an extreme injustice. In this fight, we were also decisively supported by the team of EU Athletes and its Chance to Compete campaign.

Finally, we wish to extend a special thank you to Commissioner Vestager. This case is a small one for the European Commission, but Commissioner Vestager understood from the beginning that small cases do matter to European citizens and that European competition law is there to provide a level playing for all, and we are extremely grateful for her vision.


Dr. Ben Van Rompuy (Leiden University) and Dr. Antoine Duval (T.M.C. Asser Instituut)

A Good Governance Approach to Stadium Subsidies in North America - By Ryan Gauthier

Editor's Note: Ryan Gauthier is Assistant Professor at Thompson Rivers University in Canada. Ryan’s research addresses the governance of sports organisations, with a particular focus on international sports organisations. His PhD research examined the accountability of the International Olympic Committee for human rights violations caused by the organisation of the Olympic Games.


Publicly Financing a Stadium – Back in the Saddle(dome)

Calgary, Canada, held their municipal elections on October 16, 2017, re-electing Naheed Nenshi for a third term as mayor. What makes this local election an interesting issue for sports, and sports law, is the domination of the early days of the campaign by one issue – public funding for a new arena for the Calgary Flames. The Flames are Calgary’s National Hockey League (NHL) team, and they play in the Scotiabank Saddledome. More...




Illegally obtained evidence in match-fixing cases: The Turkish perspective - By Oytun Azkanar

Editor’s Note: Oytun Azkanar holds an LLB degree from Anadolu University in Turkey and an LLM degree from the University of Melbourne. He is currently studying Sports Management at the Anadolu University.

 

Introduction

On 19 October 2017, the Turkish Professional Football Disciplinary Committee (Disciplinary Committee) rendered an extraordinary decision regarding the fixing of the game between Manisaspor and Şanlıurfaspor played on 14 May 2017. The case concerned an alleged match-fixing agreement between Elyasa Süme (former Gaziantepspor player), İsmail Haktan Odabaşı and Gökhan Sazdağı (Manisaspor players). The Disciplinary Committee acknowledged that the evidence relevant for proving the match-fixing allegations was obtained illegally and therefore inadmissible, and the remaining evidence was not sufficient to establish that the game was fixed. Before discussing the allegations, it is important to note that the decision is not only significant for Turkish football but is also crucial to the distinction between disciplinary and criminal proceedings in sports. More...

Asser International Sports Law Blog | (A)Political Games: A Critical History of Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter - By Thomas Terraz

Asser International Sports Law Blog

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

(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) <www.olympic.org/news/free-speech-for-olympic-athletes> 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) <https://www.olympic.org/pierre-de-coubertin/peace-through-sport> 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) <https://stillmed.olympic.org/AssetsDocs/OSC%20Section/pdf/LRes_19E.pdf> 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) <www.nytimes.com/2016/04/23/sports/olympics/switzerland-global-sports-capital-seeks-new-recruits.html> accessed 1 April 2020.

[23] Boykoff (n 15) 170; See also ‘China: Police Detain Would-Be Olympic Protesters’ (Human Rights Watch, 13 August 2008) <www.hrw.org/news/2008/08/13/china-police-detain-would-be-olympic-protesters> 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) <www.nytimes.com/2014/02/14/world/europe/a-russian-protest-zone-where-almost-no-one-registers-a-complaint.html> 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) <www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2016/07/putin-olympic-ban/492047/> 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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