David Owen

War has always tied the International Olympic Committee (IOC) up in knots, especially war in Europe.

In 1915, Theodore Cook, a British IOC member, demanded the expulsion of his German counterparts - when this was rejected, he resigned himself.

Indeed, the IOC has repeatedly resisted cutting ties with IOC members from pariah countries.

In 1970, when South Africa was expelled from the Olympic Movement, Reginald Honey, its IOC member, offered to resign, but the IOC voted to retain him.

Even more strikingly, Olympic historian David Miller recounts that when the Third Reich fell in 1945, the IOC not only continued to recognise the membership of its German members, one of whom had been interned, but "food parcels and clothing were sent to their families."

There are actually good reasons for adopting such a policy - it ensures a ready point of contact for when the pariah changes its ways.

The dilemma with which the IOC has been confronted as a consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine flows rather from the tension between what IOC President Thomas Bach sees as the imperative of political neutrality and the body’s desire to be on the side of the angels on matters of ethics and discrimination.

Rising nationalism and bellicosity, not only in Russia, are making this dichotomy harder and harder to fudge.

So too, I would suggest, is the fact that the IOC is more than ever a commercial organisation, dependent increasingly on sponsorship income handed over by profoundly image-conscious multinational corporations.

Perhaps happily in the long run, it seems to me that this is to some extent a false dilemma.

The issue of how to deal with wars that have broken out in Europe has always been a tricky one for the International Olympic Committee ©Getty Images
The issue of how to deal with wars that have broken out in Europe has always been a tricky one for the International Olympic Committee ©Getty Images

Political neutrality is only imperative if you believe that the Movement must at all costs not only embrace, but achieve, universality.

Bach plainly does: remember that weird press conference about a month ago, featuring the IOC President’s Hamlet soliloquy in which he appeared to be suggesting that athletes should go into character while competing, like thespians in a Shakespearean tragedy?

The German actually argued there that without universality, the Olympics would die.

"If at the end you would have Olympic Games only between National Olympic Committees whose Governments agree on every political situation," Bach said, "the Games would lose their universality and with the universality they would lose their mission; and that would lead to the end of the Olympic Games."

In fact, in the early decades of its existence, the IOC was light years away from universality - not just because participants, and still more decision-makers, came overwhelmingly from the wealthy nations of Europe and North America, plus their whitest colonies, but also because of the stringent adherence to amateurism which made Olympic sport unaffordable for ordinary working people. 

I think the IOC’s approach to universality should be a bit like a good journalist’s approach to objectivity: you admit that it is incredibly hard, perhaps impossible, to achieve, while insisting on its validity as a near-sacred objective.

Once you see universality in this way, then it becomes clear that respect for what the Olympic Charter terms "universal fundamental ethical principles" must trump neutrality-at-all-costs.

If it does not, then fine words about non-discrimination or the practice of sport as a human right are ultimately not worth the paper they are printed on.

The chasm between the way the IOC wants the world to be and the way it actually is was never clearer or wider than during the infantilised Beijing 2022 Olympic Opening Ceremony, attended by one V.Putin.

Yes, of course, this featured John Lennon’s anthem to peace, Imagine - and of course no-one batted an eyelid at the line, "Imagine there’s no countries". They never do.

More than two million refugees have now fled Ukraine in response to the war in the country ©Getty Images
More than two million refugees have now fled Ukraine in response to the war in the country ©Getty Images

Yet, Lennon being Lennon, this line encapsulates what in many ways is the nub of the problem.

It is all very well for the songwriter to think that this imagining of a country-less world "isn’t hard to do", but for the international sports movement it is utterly unthinkable.

Why? Because their entire architecture is composed of national bodies.

The statements which the IOC has so far released in response to Russia’s invasion, including that of February 28 recommending no participation by Russian and Belarusian athletes or officials, suggest that the IOC is still trying to have its cake and eat it.

I say this because the action which the IOC strongly condemns in the first two statements, and which is said in the third to have left it facing a dilemma, is the breaching of the Olympic Truce.

This is understandable: as sports officials repeatedly emphasise, they have no armies and cannot stand up to the might of nations.

By phrasing its reaction in this way, however, the IOC leaves open the question of how it would have responded had Russia attacked Ukraine at a time not covered by an Olympic Truce resolution.

This may partly explain why the tone of the February 28 release was unusually emotional, particularly use of the phrase "with a heavy heart".

This overall conundrum is something on which the IOC is going to need to sort out its thinking.

The only way in which I could see a continuing fudge getting them through is if global revulsion at Russia’s current actions is so profound as to trigger a subsidence of the strident nationalism that has been popping up in all too many places.

Failing that, the IOC will need to decide: is its mission of achieving universality really so critical that ethical or moral issues such as the fate of the Uighurs – a question on whom triggered the Bach reply cited earlier - can be perennially dead-batted away?

And it will need to make this decision knowing that the corporations which are becoming its main paymasters will be listening intently.

It has the heft of an issue demanding to be aired at a forum with the weight of an Olympic Congress, and not the sort of kitchen cabinets Bach appears to prefer.