Freedom of expression in sport

Published on June 28th, 2020

by Craig Leweck, Scuttlebutt Sailing News
The inclusion of sailing in the Olympic Games is both a privilege and a burden. While providing aspirational dreams for competitors, the Olympics shape all competitive sailing, down to the Racing Rules of Sailing being updated every four years to sync with the quadrennial cycle.

This trickle down impacts national sailing governing organizations which exist in part to fulfill their sport’s participation in the Olympics. It is a significant obligation and effectively connects all sailors to the Olympics.

And while Scuttlebutt Sailing News prefers to avoid politics, we are sharing this update as it may have implications that trickle down as well.

The Olympic Charter is the codification of the fundamental principles of Olympism, rules and by-laws adopted by the International Olympic Committee. It governs the organization, action and operation of the Olympic Movement, and sets forth the conditions for the celebration of the Olympic Games.

Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter provides a framework to protect the neutrality of sport and the Olympic Games. It states that, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

While the IOC seeks for the Games to help build a peaceful and better world through sport, there is history of athletes using this competitive stage to promote their personal beliefs.

Notably, at the Mexico City 1968 Olympic, during the playing of the U.S. national anthem at the medal ceremony of the men’s 200 meters, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a black-gloved fist – a black power salute and symbolic gesture showing their dissatisfaction with their home country’s race policy.

While the IOC inserts that Rule 50 is designed to protect the neutrality of sport and the Olympic Movement, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee has taken position to eliminate the restriction. Here’s a letter they sent to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Paralympic Committee (IPC) on June 27, 2020:

The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s Athletes’ Advisory Council (USOPC AAC), in partnership with John Carlos, 1968 200m Bronze Medalist, calls on the IOC and the IPC to abolish IOC Charter Rule 50 and develop a new policy in direct collaboration with independent, worldwide athlete representatives that protects athletes’ freedom of expression at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Athletes will no longer be silenced.

We are now at a crossroads. The IOC and IPC cannot continue on the path of punishing or removing athletes who speak up for what they believe in, especially when those beliefs exemplify the goals of Olympism.

Instead, sports administrators must begin the responsible task of transparent collaboration with athletes and athlete groups (including independent athlete groups) to reshape the future of athlete expression at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Let us work together to create a new structure that celebrates athletes who speak about issues in alignment with human rights and the 7 principles of Olympism.

Freedom of expression is recognized as a fundamental human right by the United Nations because it is essential to societal and individual well-being. Aligning with such principles will allow athletes to give the world hope beyond sport- hope that voices matter and are a powerful tool for change.

The Olympic and Paralympic movement simultaneously honors athletes like John Carlos and Tommie Smith, displaying them in museums and praising their Olympic values, while prohibiting current athletes from following in their footsteps.

Carlos and Smith risked everything to stand for human rights and what they believed in, and they continue to inspire generation after generation to do the same. It is time for the Olympic and Paralympic movement to honor their bravery rather than denounce their actions.

We expressed these sentiments on a call with the IOC Athlete Commission and appreciate them taking the time to listen to American athletes as well as reflect with John Carlos on the role Rule 50 has played in the oppression of athletes.

This call was just the beginning of the collective work necessary to find a solution that respects and values the power and importance of the athlete voice for social change.

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