Michael Pavitt

The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) declaration this week that it will not sanction athletes for demonstrating at the Olympics and Paralympics has reopened discussion regarding Rule 50, which had been largely dormant in recent months.

The statement followed the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice providing a series of recommendations about Rule 50 and the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) equivalent ruling.

None of what was suggested really came as a surprise it must be said. Given the criticism the USOPC faced when placing Gwen Berry and Race Imboden on probation after their protests at the Pan American Games last year, the writing was on the wall that the organisation would opt against sanctioning any athletes in future.

The wider context of the Black Lives Matter movement and the heightened political climate in the US would clearly have influenced thinking.

As would the response to other major organisations which have sought to dissuade protests, such as the National Football League, only to relent later with their tail between their legs.

Among the key recommendations from the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice was for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and IPC to "distinguish between human rights/social justice protests and instances of hate speech, racist propaganda, and discriminatory remarks aimed at eliminating the rights and dignity of historically marginalised and minoritised populations."

The recommendations included the establishment of an "independent regulatory body charged with (a) reviewing instances of and (b) determining consequences for “divisive disruptions” to the Games".

This suggestion of an independent body mirrors calls of other athlete bodies, such as the Athleten Deutschland group.

The declaration was swiftly met by a response by the IOC Athletes’ Commission, which is leading an ongoing international consultation regarding Rule 50.

The USOPC will not sanction athletes who protest at the Olympic and Paralympic Games ©Getty Images
The USOPC will not sanction athletes who protest at the Olympic and Paralympic Games ©Getty Images

"We have also received further feedback from athletes from many other NOCs [National Olympic Committees], such as Australia, Canada, Ireland, Germany, Mexico and Nigeria, to name but a few," IOC Athletes’ Commission chair Kirsty Coventry wrote.

"Many others have also expressed their opinion in quantitative regional surveys or in qualitative consultations.

"Much of this feedback is available publicly.

"While the consultation is still ongoing, from what we have heard so far through the qualitative process, the majority: empathise the right of free speech which is respected at the Olympic Games, and express support for preserving the ceremonies, the podium and the field of play.

"Many have also recognised the practical question of how to choose between the opinions of hundreds of issues from different angles across the world.

"From the work we have done so far, we can see that it would be very difficult to make such a judgement without dividing the athlete community from across all 206 NOCs."

The statement for some could read as something of a rebuke, but Coventry has identified one of the key challenges facing any stripping back of Rule 50. What is considered an appropriate demonstration and who exactly decides? 

Surely any organisation, like the IOC, or an independent body would find it nearly impossible to decide what is considered an approved protest or cause.

This issue was highlighted in the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) Athletes' Commission’s recommendations.

Its findings revealed that athletes "were often split in terms of what specific forms of demonstration should be allowed and what should be prohibited".

The COC Athletes' Commission recommendations also said it was "evident that demonstrations should be peaceful and respectful of other countries and athletes", as well as protecting against political, governmental or other entities, and against the intensification of geopolitical tensions.

If we take these as potential criteria, the the parameters for determining what an acceptable demonstration is become exceptionally narrow. Particularly given the vastly different backgrounds of athletes and the political situation of each competing country at an Olympics.

For an example, it is not an implausible scenario that some athletes would wish to make some form of solidarity gesture to support counterparts in Belarus.

Would it be understandable from a human rights perspective? Absolutely.

Would it be deemed as intensifying political tensions? For sure.

Such a move would undoubtedly cause consternation no matter what verdict was reached by an independent panel.

Sanctioning an athlete would be decried as the IOC or an independent body silencing a legitimate cause, while letting the protest pass would leave the them on shaky ground and open to accusations of hypocrisy should another politically-linked demonstration occur in future.

The other obvious example would be criticism of the human rights situation in China, which has been increasingly highlighted in the build-up to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Australian athletes are among those to have given feedback during the IOC Athletes' Commission consultation ©Getty Images
Australian athletes are among those to have given feedback during the IOC Athletes' Commission consultation ©Getty Images

Both the motives for and fallout of a demonstration seem obvious even now.

The indications are that the IOC has no real desire to shift from its position of demonstrations not being allowed on the field of play, during ceremonies or on the podium.

IOC President Thomas Bach has repeatedly warned the Olympics should not be "a marketplace of demonstrations", albeit it is worth pointing out that the few demonstrations to have occurred at recent Olympic Games have passed unpunished.

It is well worth highlighting too that other NOCs have differed from the more hardline US position of amending Rule 50.

The Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) Athletes' Commission survey found the majority believed they should be able to express themselves but without impacting other athletes' performances or the overall Olympic Games experience.

The AOC survey indicated some 39.91 per cent believe in self-expression at the Games depending on the circumstances, with a further 19.16 per cent approving of self-expression in any circumstances.

The remaining 40.93 per cent felt the Games were not a place for athletes to publicly express views.

More than half of respondents to a survey carried out by the German Olympic Sports Confederation said they agreed with the rules governing expression of opinion during the Olympics.

I would not be surprised if there was a further loosening of Rule 50 by the IOC next year, but I cannot envisage a scenario where it rows back on demonstrations on podiums.