Why abolishing Olympics anti-protest rule could do more harm than good

This column is an opinion of Jasmine Mian, a 2016 Canadian Olympic athlete and a graduate student at the University of Calgary School of Public Policy. For more information on CBC Opinion Section, please see the Common questions.

Anti-racism demonstrations and the Black Lives Matter movement have raised concerns about Rule 50 of the Charter of the International Olympic Committee. While those who call for the abolition of the anti-protest rule have their hearts in the right place, ending it can create more harm than good.

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The Olympics must be a neutral space, where we leave aside the problems that divide us.

If you are an athlete who wants to protest or speak out against something, there are several places you cannot do under Rule 50 – the Olympic podium, during Olympic ceremonies, in the village or on the playing field. Athletes can still express their views or protest at post-game press conferences and social media, and outside the Games venues.

The Canadian Center for Ethics in Sport and the Athlete Advisory Council of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee have asked for an amendment to the rule, citing its inconsistency with the International Declaration of Human Rights and a number of other international and domestic laws.

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On the surface, it is difficult to understand why you would not want athletes to have more rights. However, good policy recognizes that ideals are not reality and just because something is progressive does not make it productive.

First of all, rule 50 does not prevent protests, because athletes who have real conviction in their opinions do so on the field or on the podium in any way, regardless of the disciplinary action that follows – and must be commended for this bravery. When John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists to protest racial injustice at the 1968 Olympics, it was heroic because it was not convenient or welcome.

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Americans Tommie Smith, from the center, and John Carlos raise their gloved fists in a human rights protest at the 1968 Olympics. (The Associated Press)

However, there is no shortage of other places to protest, and rule 50, along with its repercussions for athletes, keeps the bar high.

And while Rule 50 is at odds with the laws of many Western democracies, it is also Westerners who benefit most from abolition.

If you want to talk about privileges, we need to recognize that a Canadian can go up to the Olympic podium and give the middle finger to the whole world and not be murdered when he gets home. This same privilege does not exist for athletes like Feyisa Lilesa, a marathon runner from Ethiopia who couldn't come home after he protested the Ethiopian government when he crossed the finish line in Rio 2016.

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Athletes living in countries with the worst human rights records face a real threat of violence or even death for speaking out. The abolition of rule 50 grants privileges to those who are already privileged, but it really changes little for everyone else.

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If the neutral space of the Olympics is broken, it can also exacerbate existing geopolitical tensions or create new ones, which is the antithesis of the Olympic movement.

An Iranian fighter secretly protested Israel's nation status feigned injury in a world championship in order to do not fight with an Israeli athlete, for example. If we routinely allow more evident forms of protest at the Olympics in the name of free speech, it won't be long before competitors refuse to take the podium with other athletes.

We must do everything we can to prevent the Olympics from further contributing to real-world struggles and animosities.

Another reason to keep the bar high around acts of protest at the podium and on the playing field is that the fate and spirit of the Olympic Games depend on it. Greater freedom for some at the Games can lead to censorship for others.

There is a risk that oppressive regimes will stop showing the Olympics to their citizens, or even sending athletes, if the risk of protest is too high. Children who should be inspired by the Olympic movement and its values ​​of inclusion and fair competition may not even experience it.

Perhaps there is an amendment to rule 50 that can overcome all of these challenges. Until then, we are going to shelve the idea of ​​abolishing Rule 50, because the Olympics do not need another ideal that they cannot fulfill.

If you have real solutions to human rights issues, get off the podium and discuss them at the press conference – or, better yet, get out and vote, run for office, volunteer or donate.


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