Olympic athletes should be allowed to protest

The sport industry must recognize the power it has in unifying or dividing people

Athletes should have the right to speak up for the communities that raised them. PHOTO: Ryunosuke Kikuno / Unsplash

By: Clarence Ndabahwerize, Peak Associate

On April 21 of this year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) upheld Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter ahead of this year’s Olympic Games, which were likely to feature protests from athletes regarding social and racial justice. Rule 50 prohibits any demonstration of political, religious, or racial propaganda in any Olympic sites or venues. According to the CBC, this decision was the result of a survey of about 3,500 athletes, 70% of whom said it was “not appropriate to demonstrate or express their views” on the field or at the opening or closing ceremonies. That same survey also showed 67% of respondents disapproved of podium demonstrations.

Sports can be a source of community and togetherness, as well as entertainment. Athletes put a lot on the line to give us that sense of community and be sources of inspiration. It is critical that appropriate platforms are integrated so we can listen to them on matters regarding their lived experiences and professions. 

This survey is a good indicator of what the majority of athletes feel is right. However, the Olympics are an event and movement that ought to have an active part in advancing human progress and dignity. This is even outlined in the Olympic Charter. Minority rights are and should be on the agenda this year and every year, given the recent events surrounding human rights abuses directed towards Black Americans, Palestinians, and Uyghur Muslims within their respective countries. 

The decision to uphold Rule 50 reveals a tension in the Olympic Charter that threatens to alienate minority groups and marginalized peoples in their pursuit of visibility, equality, and inclusion. Rules are quite often full of contradictions, and this goes for organizations all around the world. However, if the IOC is to truly operate by and realize some of the core principles in the Olympic Charter, it’d have to recognize this rule may be detrimental to that cause. 

Principle 1 of the Olympic Charter presents Olympism as creating a way of life based on the “joy of effort, the educational value of a good example, social responsibility, and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” Principle 2 goes on to say Olympism is meant for the “harmonious development of humankind” with a specific goal to promote a “peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.Principle 5 goes on to say “sports organizations within the Olympic Movement shall apply political neutrality” with the recognition “that sport occurs within the framework of society.” 

In the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Perhaps the issue is that, though the Charter is representing an idealistic future, it is a document from a different time and reflects the constraints of that time. 

In a BBC Sport article, some athletes, like Tianna Bartoletta, who had a good reason and intention to protest, said they were “made by” their communities, not the countries they represent. These athletes have the sympathy and backing of millions around the world, who are not only global citizens, but conscious humans that can feel the universal suffering of the marginalized communities they represent. For some athletes, their communities shaped them into the Olympians they are. These communities have been marred by struggle and structural violence, and in taking a stand, these athletes want to put an end to that. They want to see a better future for those that will come after them. 

Every four years, the Olympics create a rare global community. They present an opportunity to come together as one and be the best we can be as an ever-divided species. For a few weeks every four years, the Olympics have the chance to tell athletes, communities, and the world that we are moving forward, towards the world the Olympic Charter strives to reach. Tokyo 2020 unfortunately will not send that message. Tokyo 2020 as an Olympic community has missed the chance to shape humankind for the better by setting a good example. It has failed to be part of the vigorous global effort in progress to create and preserve human dignity.