Liam Morgan

As is often the case when he addresses sensitive issues, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach’s comments on athlete protests at the Games were draped in typical obfuscation.

Speaking after a remote Executive Board meeting earlier this week, Bach said the IOC Athletes’ Commission would open talks with other athletes on potentially easing the ban on protests and demonstrations at the Olympics.

The IOC Athletes’ Commission - often criticised for rarely veering too far from the party line and aligning itself too closely with the ruling body - will "have dialogue with athletes around the world to explore different ways for how Olympic athletes can express their support for the principles enshrined in the Olympic Charter in a dignified way”, Bach added.

Reading between the lines - as you have to do with Bach and other IOC executives known for using a lot of words to say very little – the IOC’s stance on protests appears to have softened in the wake of worldwide demonstrations following the death of George Floyd in the United States.

Only six months ago, the IOC Athletes’ Commission issued guidelines on Rule 50, which threatened athletes who protest at the Games with a triumvirate of disciplinary action from the IOC, their National Olympic Committee and sport’s governing body.

Under these guidelines, specific demonstrations, such as taking a knee or raising a fist, were outlawed.

Bach warned of the need to differentiate between "support for the principles enshrined in the Olympic Charter and potentially divisive demonstrations", yet those very acts were classed as "divisive disruption" in January.

The IOC Executive Board met this week, with anti-discrimination among the topics discussed ©IOC
The IOC Executive Board met this week, with anti-discrimination among the topics discussed ©IOC

During his post-meeting press conference, Bach referred to "dignified" gestures, without explaining what exactly that might entail.

When pressed on whether acts such as American athletes kneeling during the national anthem would be permitted, Bach said: "I will not pre-empt in any way this consultation the Athletes’ Commission will have.

"It would not be fair if now I make a statement and they are giving directions or instructions in this respect. Let the Athletes’ Commission and the athletes discuss it themselves and then come up with the relevant proposals."

It is unclear exactly what the IOC wants and Bach’s comments sent a conflicting message to athletes across the world.

You might be able to protest, but we don’t know how yet. Yes, you could be cleared to take a knee. No wait, is that divisive? Oh, and do remember to respect the principles "enshrined in the Olympic Charter".

The IOC appears to be tying itself in knots on an issue which, by its very nature, requires clarity.

This has already been provided by the likes of the National Football League and other American sports organisations, which have relaxed their rules on athletes protesting following the death of Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of white police officer Derek Chauvin. It seems the IOC has missed an opportunity by not following suit.

Gwen Berry protested on the podium during the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima ©Getty Images
Gwen Berry protested on the podium during the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima ©Getty Images

The IOC would have been under huge pressure to do so if the Olympics had been held as planned this year. Given the current climate, it seems inconceivable that an athlete would not have protested in some form at Tokyo 2020 this summer.

Even though the Games are set to happen a year later than scheduled, black athletes, for example, will no doubt still feel sufficiently aggrieved to take their protests onto the Olympic stage.

Many will have felt more inclined to do exactly that after the guidelines were published. After all, when you are told not to do something, it makes doing it all the more attractive.

A cynic might suggest this was the IOC’s aim from the start. Imagine how powerful an image of an athlete protesting racism or another social injustice at the Olympic Games would be for the television cameras.

To those of us whose parents are not even old enough to remember the Mexico City 1968 Olympics, the defining moments of those Games are the protests carried out by Tommy Smith and John Carlos, not the dressage, 50 metres backstroke or rapid fire pistol shooting events.

Suggesting the IOC deliberately orchestrated the regulations to spark protests for event profile purposes is surely wide of the mark, but it is easy to see the appeal for an organisation which is desperate for its flagship property to hog the limelight, even if it is not for sporting reasons.

What is similarly easy is for the IOC and other sports bodies to publish platitude-filled anti-discrimination statements, in some cases purely for the sake of it, in the wake of such tragedies.

George Floyd's death has sparked protests across the world ©Getty Images
George Floyd's death has sparked protests across the world ©Getty Images

There has been an undeniable air of hypocrisy in the response from sport to the death of Floyd and the subsequent surge in the Black Lives Matter movement, personified perfectly by one English football club’s players taking a knee in the centre circle of the pitch at their home stadium.

That same club less than a decade ago approved its players wearing t-shirts in support of one of their team mates, who had been found guilty of racially abusing an opponent.

The IOC has hardly practised what it has preached when it comes to anti-discrimination, either. It has steadfastly refused to punish Iran on numerous occasions for a Government-led directive that athletes from the country should not share a sporting stage with Israelis.

The IOC also allows and enables events to happen in countries like China and Russia, where discrimination, be it religious or sexuality-related, remains rife.

Such is the level of scepticism of the IOC's anti-discrimination work that the excellent Australian journalist Tracey Holmes quizzed Bach on what exactly the organisation does in this area.

"The IOC is living these values in our every day life," Bach said. "You see Olympic Solidarity, with our programmes around the Olympic refugee team, our support for refugees worldwide, our efforts for gender equality and with many other actions. 

"We are delivering day-by-day on this non-discrimination and this commitment on non-discrimination.

"A demonstration in support of the Olympic principles of non-discrimination is in our DNA, this is one of the raisons d'être of the Olympic Games. Everybody who is participating in the Olympic Movement and the Games in particular is standing for these values and is demonstrating for these values already by participating in the Olympic Games."

The postponement of Tokyo 2020 has given the IOC additional time to address the issue of protests, but it does not mean it should kick the can down the road while hoping this will all go away. Because it won’t.

It is worth noting here that surely even the IOC would not stoop so low as to ban an athlete from the Games for a protest the IOC itself might agree with. 

If the IOC truly supports the fight against discrimination, it would allow athletes of every ethnicity and background to speak up for what they believe in, even if this happens to occur at the Olympic Games.