By STEPHEN WADE AP Sports Writer
The International Olympic Committee has always been political, from the sheikhs and royals in its membership to a seat at the United Nations to push for peace talks between the Koreas. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine three weeks ago exposed his irreconcilable claims of “political neutrality.”
The IOC’s policy was evident in Hitler’s 1936 Olympics. During the Cold War, the Games were the scene of conflicts (Mexico City), violence (Munich) and boycotts (Moscow). To this day, the IOC has partnered with authoritarian states like China and Russia, beginning with the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, through the doping-scarred Sochi Games to the just-closed Beijing Winter Olympics. .
There are huge gaps between what the IOC has long insisted is — “the very heart of world sport” — and a vision that is closer to reality; a non-profit sports company, based in Switzerland, that generates around 90% of its income from the sale of broadcasting rights and sponsorships.
Increasingly, the IOC must cater to wealthy patrons that was barely a factor 30 years ago when the nearly bankrupt Games turned commercial and professional. Olympians push for a bigger slice of the pie, knowing their careers are fragile (only 30% of them attend the Olympics more than once).
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The most visible policy involves 206 nations and territories marching to the Games under national colors, flags and soulful anthems, but never in a vacuum. By comparison, the UN has just 193 member states.
Following the invasion of Ukraine, acting due to a breach of the so-called Olympic Truce and not because of the war itself: the IOC has recommended that sports federations and event organizers “neither invite nor allow” the participation of Russian or Belarusian athletes.
But he left loopholes, stood by and urged others to act. Many have done so, leaving the Russians and Belarusians out of most sports competitions. The IOC itself has not banned the Olympic committees of Russia or Belarus, nor the IOC members of those countries, nor has it publicly called for action by major IOC sponsors.
The IOC tries to have it both ways, and often in three or four ways.
“Taking a strong position on Russia is relatively safe. And the only critics will be those of us who point out the IOC’s inconsistencies,” said Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and author of “The Olympic Games: A Critical Approach.”
DO YOU HEAR THE VOICES OF ATHLETES?
The IOC has an internal Athletes Commission, but faces pressure from outside groups. To participate in the Olympic Games, athletes must waive image and likeness rights, limit their freedom of expression, and also sign waivers. The exemptions for the Tokyo and Beijing Olympics had an additional clause exempting the IOC from responsibility for any consequences related to COVID-19.
The IOC has said that athletes and national federations have insurance coverage for most eventualities.
Rob Koehler, secretary general of the advocacy group Global Athlete, said his body helped Ukrainian athletes write to the IOC, calling for a ban from Russia and Belarus. He said that he has received neither a response nor an acknowledgment of receipt of the letter.
“If you don’t act quickly against Russia and Belarus, you will continue to erode the Olympic brand,” Koehler said, “and when that brand is eroded, the people most affected are the athletes, the ones who fill the stadium and attract sponsors and broadcasters.” .
At his first press conference eight and a half years ago as IOC president, Thomas Bach spelled out the organization’s position with precise ambiguity.
“The IOC cannot be apolitical,” Bach said. “We have to realize that our decisions in events like the Olympics have political implications. And in making these decisions we have to, of course, consider the political implications.”
However, before his words could be parsed, he added to the conundrum: “But to fulfill our role of making sure that the Olympic Games and for the participants respect the Charter, we have to be strictly politically neutral. And there we also have to protect athletes.”
A day before the opening of the Winter Olympics last month, Bach said the IOC’s position should be one of “political neutrality.” He said doing otherwise would put “the Games at risk.” Three weeks later, after Bach joined Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the opening ceremony, Russia invaded Ukraine.
The IOC later acknowledged a reality, saying the war had created an “unresolvable dilemma”.
The key to the success of the Olympic Games has been both political and sporting. Part of the compelling tension behind the Olympics is competition between countries, nationalism, waving flags and riveting anthems. Winning the most gold medals becomes a substitute for national superiority, increasingly a competition between authoritarians and democrats.
Many Olympic disciplines are unpopular, attracting an audience every four years in search of gold. Few except hardcore fans would care about Greco-Roman wrestling, the modern pentathlon, or fencing; if so, nationalism was not the obvious backdrop. And China has become a powerhouse at the Winter Paralympics, allowing it to promote its leadership at the top of the medal table to an increasingly nationalistic audience.
Patriotism and politics drive some of the Olympics’ appeal to sponsors and television broadcasters, while simultaneously the IOC insists it is politically neutral. The IOC has permanent observer status at the United Nations to increase political influence, not reduce it. A sports enterprise, the IOC is one of the few non-governmental bodies (the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is another) to share the status.
Jules Boykoff, a professor of political science at the University of the Pacific and a critic of the IOC, suggested that instead of athletes marching under national flags, they should enter under sporting disciplines: skaters together, basketball players in a group, gymnasts in pairs. “Athletes could get to know each other better with that kind of mix,” said Boykoff, author of “Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics.”
But there are no national flags. Of course, no national flag could be a death sentence for the Olympics.
Boykoff said that the IOC, if it acknowledges the policy, “opens the door for a deeper discussion about what kind of policy the IOC supports.”
“Over the years, the IOC has shown a remarkable tolerance for tyranny. But by using ‘apolitical’ as a shield, they can shield themselves from legitimate criticism and simply state that they work with everyone, regardless of politics. They prefer to ignore the fact that neutrality can mean siding with oppressive forces.
POLITICS FROM THE BEGINNING
Almost every Modern Olympics, since the first in 1896, has had political nuances.
In Antwerp in 1920, the countries defeated in the First World War were not invited to attend. That meant Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. Nor did the newly formed Soviet Union participate.
In 1936 in Berlin, Hitler hoped to use the Games to promote Aryan racial superiority. Black American Jesse Owens won four gold medals, defying Hitler’s propaganda.
In Mexico City in 1968, black Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at the podium in a black power salute. The United States Olympic Committee kicked them off the team, but in 2019 they were inducted into the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee Hall of Fame.
China celebrated the 2008 Olympic Games under the widespread belief that they could produce improvements on human rights, the consensus is that such progress did not happen, with the just-completed 2022 Winter Olympics taking place in the midst of a pandemic amid worsening human rights conditions for Uyghur and Tibetan minorities, and tighter control over Hong Kong.
International Paralympic Committee President Andrew Parsons complained that his speech at the opening ceremony on March 4, which began with an impassioned anti-war plea, was censored by China’s state broadcaster. China has refused to publicly criticize Russia’s invasion, and Parsons’ words in English were left untranslated or muted, which Chinese officials blamed on an unexplained “glitch.”
Now the Olympics are moving from China, a country that bans virtually all protests, to France, where spirited street protests are part of the culture, and where dissent could be empowered rather than shut down. For Paris, when it comes to keeping order, it could be a rocky road.
Xu Guoqi, a historian at the University of Hong Kong and author of “Olympic Dreams: China and Sports” suggests that any “new era of the Cold War” could be bad news for the Games. After all, as Xu points out, during the original Cold War “everything was political” and the Olympics were scorched by three boycotts: Montreal, Moscow and Los Angeles. The Olympic spirit faded then, and it could do so again.
“It seems to me,” said Xu, that “there has never been a pure Olympiad.”
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