The story is familiar. A nation with a dubious human rights record wins the bid to host the Olympic Games. Activists call foul, and the host government’s shortcomings become the subject of international news coverage and debate. Committees convene to discuss the matter; some even publish strongly worded recommendations to boycott the Games.
One resolution reads: “Therefore be it resolved, that the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States declares itself against America’s participation in the Olympic Games … and solemnly calls upon American athletes to refuse to participate … and calls upon the International Olympic Committee to move the Olympic Games to another country where it is possible for them to be held in accordance with the Olympic ideal of chivalry and fair play.” However, this resolution was not written in opposition to the treatment of LGBT citizens under Russia’s gay laws, nor to the oppression of Tibetans by the Chinese regime prior the 2008 Games, nor even to the questionable economic policies of Brazilian officials during the lead-up to Rio 2016. This resolution dates back to December 1935, and it protests the harsh treatment of Jews in Germany under policies such as the Nuremberg Laws.
Dialogue on human rights is as inevitable at the Olympics as Coca-Cola commercials and U.S. basketball victories. Throughout recent history, the Olympics has proven to be more than just an arena for sports. It is a forum for the protests, boycotts, and demonstrations that capitalize on the Games’ publicity to press a political agenda.
While the U.S. did not boycott the 1936 Games, President Jimmy Carter did decline U.S. participation in the 1980 Moscow Games, ostensibly in opposition to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, the Soviets responded in kind, refusing to send athletes to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, citing vague “security reasons.” Other notable boycotts include that of Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq in response to the Suez Crisis of 1956; that of 25 African nations in 1976 in response to New Zealand’s supposed support of apartheid in South Africa; and that of Taiwan in 1980, which refused to compete under the name Chinese Taipei.
In addition to these national boycotts, individual athletes have expressed their opposition to the host country’s policies. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the 1968 Olympic Games, when African American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in solidarity with the Black Power movement. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) expelled them for making an overly political statement at what it had intended to be an apolitical athletic event.
The Black Power incident, while provocative in the charged climate of race relations in 1960s America, was at least nonviolent. This was not so with the clash between the Hungarian and Soviet water polo teams in the 1956 Games. At nearly the same time as the Hungarian Uprising, the two teams fought what was undoubtedly the bloodiest game of water polo ever seen at the Olympics. During the so-called “Blood in the Water” match, the two sides exchanged kicks and punches until the Hungarians emerged victorious.
Spectators, too, have used the Olympics as a platform for their political grievances. The coverage of the Black Power salute of 1968 in Mexico City overshadowed what was perhaps the more significant political story: the mass protests led by University of Mexico students against the government’s spending on the Games. (This has echoes none too faint in Rio, the site of the 2016 Olympic Games.)
Professor Robert Barney, associated with the International Center for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario, is a leading expert on the history of the Games and has attended more than a dozen Olympics. At the 1992 Games, Barney remembers extensive demonstrations by Catalonian separatists.
“For every Olympic flag that flew from a balcony in Barcelona, I saw a Catalan flag,” he recalls. As a qualifying statement, he stresses that not all demonstrations are related to political issues. Religion comes into play as well. Proselytization has been rampant at every Olympiad he has attended.
When asked why the Olympics — basically a massive sporting event — has frequently served as the backdrop for unrelated protests, Barney’s response is simple. “The reason [is] that it gathers so much attention,” he says of the modern Olympics, especially and crucially “on television.” The Olympics vies for the greatest viewership of any single televised event, surpassed only by the World Cup. What better forum to vent one’s grievances than the city where, for a few weeks, the camera crews of every major news station in the world run rampant? And what better way to make the news with one’s agenda than to provide a controversial story to thousands of journalists chafing for a headline?
Yet media attention alone does not explain why the Olympics has attracted impassioned political activity. It is the very spirit of the Games, as much as the publicity, that draws in activists. The opening section of the Olympic Charter reads: “Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” Social responsibility and ethics have been associated with the Olympic Games for so long that the transcendent “Olympic Spirit” is inextricably tied to the sporting events themselves.
For billions of fans and thousands of athletes, the Olympics is an optimistic attempt to reconcile national differences, recognize the talent of human beings from every corner of the world, and work toward a more perfect global society. For much of the world, these motivations have even taken precedent over the results of the competitions. Medals have become merely a means by which athletes prove their determination for personal excellence within the context of international cooperation. (For reference, watch any Visa Olympics commercial from the past decade.)
It is surprising, then, that the Olympic Charter — featuring idealistic visions of international fraternity and human dignity — includes the following caveat: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” If a country were to push its own agenda on the members of the IOC, it would violate the spirit of equality that is so central to the Olympics. Nonetheless, many would argue that the kind of activity that fosters Olympic ideals requires a dialogue in which opposing parties can express their views publicly and work through their differences.
The concern, of course, is that unchecked protests easily erupt in violence, as the 1972 Munich Massacre starkly demonstrated. During this incident, the Palestinian group Black September took hostage — and eventually killed — eleven Israeli Olympians and a German police officer. According to Barney, this horrific event “put in place the need for a much more sophisticated and better security system,” which included limits to political protests.
The general policy of host countries and Olympic Committees since that time has been to establish protest zones away from the sporting venues and require permits for protest. While irksome to activists seeking to demonstrate at the Games, such limitations are in accord with the principle concerns of the IOC: safety and security.
“The IOC is a reactionary body,” says Barney. “They really like to keep peace and quiet.” Hence, the IOC tends to err on the side of preemption. For example, Barney continues, “it’s very hard to anticipate and control an individual athlete’s tacit or overt expression.” Hence, the IOC curtails athletes’ expression as if it were a potential threat to the Games’ security or the host country’s national interests.
The Rise of Principle 6 in the Sochi Games
This year’s Winter Games in Sochi, Russia have been the backdrop for the most widespread and public protest movements in recent Olympic history. Rarely in living memory has the media turned so much attention to a single human rights issue in an Olympic host country: the so-called “anti-gay propaganda” laws passed by the Russian government in June 2013. Now, Russians who provide information on LGBT lifestyles to minors can face high fines.
Avid Olympics fans have engaged in personal, televised boycotts as a result of their opposition to Russia’s laws. The U.S. delegation to the Games included several outspoken gay athletes in what was viewed as a deliberate attack on Moscow’s policies. Even Google — which, if not a weather vane for mainstream America, certainly has access to a larger portion of it than nearly any other organization — displayed its support for equal participation in the Olympics in its February 6 homepage. The website ran a quote from the Olympic Charter: “The practice of sport is a human right.”
Moscow and the IOC have responded to the threat of protest and unrest in typical fashion. The Russian government designated protest zones, just like the Chinese government did six years ago in Beijing. Athletes are prohibited from wearing clothing that explicitly supports gay rights or opposes Russia’s laws. The IOC has defended Russia’s approach, citing precedent and sections of the Olympic Charter which seem to allow host countries to sacrifice some measure of free speech for the sake of security. Plus, concerns about safety from terrorist attacks following the bombings in Volgograd last December and suspected “toothpaste bombs” earlier this year have justifiably prompted Russian authorities to strengthen security measures. It is highly unlikely that these attacks had any relation whatsoever to movements for gay rights. Yet the general threat of violence has led to tighter restrictions limiting opposition activities of all sorts.
For all of the obstacles, activists and athletes have found creative ways of expressing their opinions within the boundaries set forward by Russia and the IOC. For instance, representatives from All Out and Athlete Ally, two organizations that provide support for LGBT athletes, founded the Principle 6 campaign. This movement asks athletes to wear gear displaying the slogan “Principle 6”: a phrase that is sufficiently ambiguous to avoid prosecution yet that delivers a clear message.
“Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter states that, ‘Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement,’ and the IOC has confirmed that this includes sexual orientation,” Brian Healey of Athlete Ally explained to The Politic. “But in Russia, you can now be fined or arrested for speaking publicly about gay, lesbian, bi or trans issues. The new laws have fueled a massive surge in anti-gay violence within the country. The Principle 6 campaign uses the language of the Olympic Charter to give athletes and fans a way to speak out against this violence and discrimination before and during the Sochi Olympics without breaking Russian anti-gay laws or violating the Olympic ban on political speech.”
Healey emphasized that the campaign allows athletes to be as outspoken in their support as possible within the guidelines set by the IOC. “The Principle 6 campaign uses the language of the Olympic Charter to allow athletes and fans to speak out against this discrimination during the Sochi Games without violating Russian anti-propaganda laws or violating the Olympic ban on political speech,” he said. “The IOC has officially stated that athletes are free to voice their opinions on the Russian laws in press conferences. We hope all athletes focus on their competitions and perform well, but we also hope that they use press conferences as a platform to speak out against the discriminatory Russian laws, and we believe that the Principle 6 campaign is a perfect way for them to do so.”
More than fifty athletes have signed up to support the campaign, including 13 competitors in the Sochi Games. Among these is Belle Brockhoff, a young snowboarding phenom from Australia who herself identifies as lesbian. She was one of several athletes approached by Athlete Ally as the campaign was being planned, and as she recounted, “After receiving more information about it, I immediately said yes!”
Brockhoff’s enthusiasm for the campaign stems partly from the solution it offers to athletes wishing to oppose Russia’s laws without jeopardizing their position in the Games.
“I am confident the IOC will not prevent athletes from wearing the gear,” Brockhoff told The Politic in December. “The Campaign is not only directed towards the IOC sticking to its principles but pointing out the issues that LGBT Russians are struggling with. There, I think the Russian government may be uneasy with.” Her predictions have proven true. While avoiding the limitations on athlete expression, she and her fellow athletes have generated the kind of media attention that the campaign was intended to garner.
Despite the apparently widespread opposition to Russia’s laws both inside and outside of the country, political gestures such as the Principle 6 campaign will always have their detractors. On the one hand, some say that they do not go far enough. By operating within the framework set by the host government, activists implicitly accept said government’s license to constrain opposition. Such protest, they argue, will inevitably be stifled once it is seen to have “gone too far.” On the other hand, some oppose taking advantage of the Olympics to advance an unrelated and divisive cause. They claim that demonstrations undermine the apolitical spirit of toleration undergirding the Olympics.
Yet for activists like those at Athlete Ally, the policies they are protesting are what truly undermine the Olympic spirit.
“The Olympics were created for nations to come together to celebrate their commonalities as well as their differences — hence the creation of the Olympic charter, including Principle 6,” Healey said. “We believe it is the responsibility of the IOC to ensure not only the safety and well-being of every athlete and fan in attendance, but that they also promote the Olympic values of respect and equality in host countries.”