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Refraining from sanctioning Saunders is the only right thing to do, as is amending Rule 50.2 in consequence
Johannes Herber, former German basketball player and managing director of Athleten-Deutschland
In October 2020, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) athletes department undertook a global consultation on the appropriate ways for athletes to demonstrate or express views during the Olympic Games.
Rule 50.2 of the Olympic Charter provides for the protection of the neutrality of sport at the Olympic Games and the neutrality of the Games themselves.
It states that, "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."
Thomas Bach, ninth and current president of the IOC, felt that he needed to draw a line.
"The unifying power of the Games can only unfold if everyone shows respect for and solidarity to one another," Bach wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian. "Otherwise, the Games will descend into a marketplace of demonstrations of all kinds, dividing and not uniting the world."
Bach made it crystal clear: regardless of what results the consultation would bring, amending or even abolishing Rule 50.2, was not on the table. While the piece is littered with the so-called “Olympic values” such as solidarity, peace, respect and friendship, one of the IOC’s most fundamental value receives no mention yet glows brightly between the lines – control.
Control is the fuel the Olympic movement runs on, from sporting rules to sponsorship restrictions, to waivers of liability in case of COVID infections. Bach’s decree to keep Rule 50 intact reinforced this point.
Allowing athletes to express their support for social causes on the field of play or the podium would mean ceding control to them. Things would become unpredictable. The façade of perfect Olympic imagery would crack.
"I really think that my generation really don’t care," said Raven Saunders, an American track and field athlete who competes in the shot put and discus throw.
After crossing her arms into an X on the Olympic podium this past Sunday, a sign that in her words represented the "intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet", the 25-year-old athlete clarified to the press that she was not wary at all of being sanctioned for breaking the rules. She stressed she wanted to be herself and to not apologize.
This is where Bach and the new generation of athletes that Saunders alludes to deviate.
The desire to show up with their full selves at any time and at any place. The refusal to be reduced to suppliers of marketable images. The belief that respect for one another does not mean staying silent but expressing empathy, especially for the views of minorities and marginalized groups. The unity that this generation aspires to, is a different version than Bach’s.
This unity cannot be achieved by ignoring differences and glossing over dissenting views, it is to be forged through respectful dialogue that allows diversity to come to the fore and real understanding to be created.
Freedom of expression is, of course, the key to unlocking the space for such dialogue to occur. At Athleten Deutschland we took, as have other athlete groups and associations, an early stand in the debate.
In our position paper, we emphasized that the political neutrality the IOC sets out to pursue does not justify the sweeping ban of expression of any kind as Rule 50.2 spells it out. We, therefore, called on the IOC to revise the rule in accordance with international human rights instruments.
A revision, in our view, should not result in an anything-goes policy, but rather entail a set of specified and least-intrusive boundaries to free speech. These limits could include intentionally untruthful statements, the violation of the rights of others, hate speech and maybe even the explicit support for political parties or groups.
We also proposed to set up a mechanism for preliminary examination of certain forms of expressions such as banners or symbols to provide athletes with the opportunity to gauge the consequences of a particular protest.
In the lead-up to the Games these proposals were routinely ignored. Yet, when shortly before Tokyo’s opening ceremony Nike Lorenz, a field hockey player and member of Athleten Deutschland, expressed her wish to wear a rainbow-colored band during matches in a major German newspaper, things shifted.
The IOC approved the band in response to the DOSB, the German Olympic Sports Confederation, requesting permission on Lorenz’s behalf. An IOC spokesperson later confirmed that requests for speech acts were admissible and would be considered on a case-by-case basis.
While the entire process remains insufficiently defined and in the absence of any criteria, approval rests on the goodwill of the IOC.
Lorenz’s case set a precedent that others may choose to follow. Her motivation, by the way, neatly aligns with Raven Saunders’. "Behind us athletes are real humans and we do have political opinions," she told Deutsche Welle in an interview. "While doing sport we deserve to be the humans that we are."
The crossed arms of Raven Saunders have put the IOC once again at a crossroad. While the US Olympic Committee has already confirmed the gesture did not constitute a breach of its own rules, the IOC is still looking into the case.
Refraining from sanctioning Saunders is the only right thing to do, as is amending Rule 50.2 in consequence.
Rather than descending into the dystopian marketplace of divisive demonstrations of Bach, a step as such would lift the Games into a different orbit. A place where solidarity and respect are not unilaterally defined but filled with life by the very people the Games were originally intended for – the athletes.
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