Olympic Athletes Deserve Freedom of Speech

The International Olympic Committee is one of those organizations that always says it’s changing so that it never has to actually change all that much. The IOC tinkers around the edges of reform and then trumpets this tinkering as if it has shaken up the Olympic world, when in reality, the only tremors come from their thunderous sense of self-satisfaction.

Last week, this dynamic was in full effect when the IOC released new guidelines for the notorious rule 50 in the Olympic Charter that states, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

The new guidelines place limitations on when and where Olympians can “express their views.” While athletes can talk politics when speaking to the media during press conferences and at team meetings—spaces where Olympians have long been free to speak out—they are still prohibited from “expressing their views” on the medal stand, during the opening and closing ceremonies, in the Olympic Village where athletes reside during the Games, and on the field of play during competition. The new policy does allow Olympians to express themselves “on the field of play prior to the start of competition” so long as their act is “not disruptive” and doesn’t target specific individuals, countries, organizations or “their dignity.”

First, it must be said that this announcement, tepid as it may be, never would have come about were it not for consistent pressure exerted by social justice–minded athletes. Second, these same athletes—and their allies—are not satisfied with this half measure, nor should they be. After all, these guidelines clash mightily with the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which unequivocally states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference.”

Rob Koehler, director general of the transnational, athlete-led group Global Athlete, told The Nation, “Instead of implementing meaningful changes to allow athletes their basic human right to freedom of expression, the IOC tried to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes, indicating the rule has been relaxed, which in fact is has not.” He added, “This was another public-relations exercise that is more about the headlines than the content. The reality is athletes still cannot use the podium or field of play to peacefully protest. And for those who choose to exercise their right, the IOC’s sanctioning rules are ambiguous and subjective. So much for athletes’ rights.” Koehler is right. The punishments for violating the new guidelines are nebulous at best.

Koehler and Global Athlete are not alone. In response to the IOC’s announcement, the European Elite Athletes Association—a multi-sport collection of trade unions from 17 European countries—did not mince words. The group’s statement read: “The IOC’s approach to freedom of speech and expression consists of an attempt to restrict, redefine and control the way that the athletes exercise their fundamental human right. Threatening to sanction athletes who peacefully protest on issues such as racism is not only inconsistent with human rights, but also goes against the values that the IOC claims to support.”

“It’s really frustrating that the IOC have tried to pass this off as meaningful change,” said Caradh O’Donovan, the Irish karate athlete and former World Champion kickboxer. She told The Nation, “They have wasted so much time and resources on this consultation process and yet, in reality, nothing has changed. Athletes are still not being afforded their right to freedom of expression.”

By “consultation process,” O’Donovan is referring to the dubious survey, carried out by the IOC, of around 3,500 athletes, that found that a majority deemed it inappropriate to demonstrate or express their views on the field of play, on the victory podium, or at official ceremonies. David Owens of Inside the Games did a critical deep dive into the survey and noted that not only was the wording suspicious, but that some countries where dissent is not valued—or permitted—were overrepresented. Beyond this, polling for basic human rights is unsavory at best. Rights are rights, not something to be focus group–tested.

Let’s be clear: There is a lot to protest in Olympics Land. In the last couple weeks alone, we’ve seen jaw-dropping outbursts of anti-Black racism related to the Games. The international federation that governs swimming (FINA) announced that it would ban swim caps designed for athletes with afros. FINA stated that the caps, manufactured by the Black-owned firm Soul Cap, do not “fit the natural form of the head.” Feeling the pressure from activists and purveyors of common sense, FINA agreed to revisit the ban.

Meanwhile, two Black track athletes from Namibia—Beatrice Masilingi and Christine Mboma—were excluded from the Tokyo Games in the 400-meter run because of high levels of naturally occurring testosterone, making them the most recent casualties of the racist regulations that are preventing the great South African runner Caster Semenya from participating in the Olympics.

When US hammer thrower Gwen Berry turned away from the flag and held aloft a T-shirt emblazoned with “Activist Athlete” at the Olympic qualifiers for track and field, the backlash came thick and fierce from the cretins at Fox News and members of Congress. After a drug test picked up marijuana in US sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson’s system—which she ingested when mourning her biological mother’s death—she was unceremoniously scratched from the 100-meter dash in Tokyo; the racialized drug war reared its ugly head once again.

All this—and much more—demands dissent. This pattern is also a stark reminder that the Olympic Charter’s Rule 50 is a thinly veiled gambit to maintain the existing power relations, not only at the Olympic Games but also in broader society. Opponents of racism, sexism, and all the other “isms” in which the IOC freely frolics, should not demand a better Rule 50, but— short of hate speech—an end to restrictions on athletes’ freedom of expression. Or, to paraphrase The Nation’s Elie Mystal, “If you don’t like what I have to say, then you can pick up the hammer and try and throw it farther.”

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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