IOC Rule 50 Is Slap in the Face to Origins of Olympism and Games Founder Pierre de Coubertin

Anthony Ervin - Rule 50

IOC Rule 50 Is Slap in the Face to Origins of Olympism and Games Founder Pierre de Coubertin

The project that Pierre de Coubertin undertook more than a century ago was many things. It was never, however, apolitical.

The baron grew up in a 19th century France humiliated by defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. He saw the ravages that omnipresent conflict between European states inflicted on the continent, a situation that persisted until World War II. His refuge was an idyllic history of the ancient Greeks. And in meshing the utopia of the past with the distinctly challenging present, he saw sport as a remedy.

“Wars break out because nations misunderstand each other,” Coubertin famously wrote. “We shall not have peace until the prejudices which now separate the different races shall have been outlived. To attain this end, what better means than to bring the youth of all countries periodically together for amicable trials of muscular strength and agility?”

What Coubertin sketched out, what he brought to life for the first time in 1896 and every four years thereafter (world wars and pandemics, notwithstanding) has for the most part lived out that ideal. But what Coubertin created wasn’t a vacuum of politics but rather a grafting of politics onto the sporting stage, one where the stakes were generally less than life and death.

More than 80 years after his death, the attempt to separate politics from the Olympics isn’t just foolhardy. It runs counter to the values Coubertin built his Olympic movement around.

The current efforts center on objections to Rule 50 of the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Charter. That rule restricts “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda … permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” Those that passionately defend Rule 50 do so in defense of the purity of sport, as an arena in which real life and its myriad complications end to allow unfettered enjoyment of a sporting event.

But that arrangement does a disservice to the Olympics’ ethos. Coubertin didn’t just create an international athletic competition. He didn’t just presage 20th century trends of internationalism, in culture and commerce. He created a philosophical underpinning for the Games, the idea of Olympism. From the Olympic Charter, describing the “fundamental principles of Olympism”:

“Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, 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.”

To tell an athlete to stow something so fundamental to them, like a devotion to human rights, to compete runs counter to this philosophy. It is antithetical to the original concept of the Olympics as not just a sporting but a multicultural festival that included, from 1912 to 1948, architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture. (Fun fact: Hungary’s Alfred Hajos, who won gold medals in the 1896 Olympics in the 100-meter and 1,200-meter freestyle, won a silver medal in the 1924 Olympics in the architecture art competition. He also competed in 1928 and 1932).

The Olympic charter holds that, “The practice of sport is a human right.” Many of those seeking to express themselves on Olympic podiums are fighting for ideals that are also human rights, whether that’s Naomi Osaka displaying the names of Black people killed by police on her apparel to underscore their right to live in the face of state violence or athletes kneeling during the national anthem to protest systemic inequality that denies millions of people the free exercise of their rights. In the most famous Olympic protest, by Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, the media attention was focused on the Black power salute of their gloved fists. Overlooked was the symbology of beads worn to protest the lack of justice for victims of lynching in the United States or the men standing barefoot to protest a system that strands millions in unrelenting poverty. Those rights, to life and a chance at prosperity, are ones that should be inarguable within the framework of Olympism.

With any speech issue, there is a slippery slope argument. If athletes can express generally excepted, broadly progressive ideas on the podium, what is to stop athletes from expressing more regressive ideas?

It’s a valid argument. But it’s undercut by the fact that the IOC has had no problem partnering with those regressive elements for decades. The IOC was complicit in 1936 with helping the Nazi regime launder its public image and offer a veneer of global legitimacy as it planned genocide. It was prepared to do the same with an imperialistic Japanese regime in 1940. The Olympics have been used as a cudgel by both sides of the Cold War. The recent hits: A nation with a horrific record on workers’ rights spending billions on the Games while shirking public services, one led by an autocratic ruler who persecutes dissidents and criminalizes homosexuality, and an upcoming groundswell against a nation perpetrating human rights abuses against an ethnic minority.

The IOC is plenty free to express its ideology with its billions of dollars in subsidies and grants, but when an athlete does it, then the purity of sport is in danger. Unless that athlete is expressing a commercial interest on behalf of a company the IOC’s gate-keepers’ fee.

The desire to keep politics out of sports is an inherently political stance. The difference is that it backs the status quo. It’s a privileged state that prioritizes comfort for the majority, the maintenance of an ideological bubble that is undisturbed by potentially conflicting viewpoints and truths. It’s based in fear, of disruption of the current state and the current interests.

In reflecting on his podium demonstration, Smith has called it “a cry for freedom and for human rights.” It’s a cry that the original aims of Olympism should heed.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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3 years ago

You bring some valid points and are certainly welcome to share your opinion. However I disagree. If athletes want to protest then fine. Just don’t do it at the podium.

3 years ago

The hypocrisy of the IOC is even more apparent when one considers that the medal ceremony itself is the ultimate political messaging platform, where nations – national ideologies – serve as proxies for athletic achievement. Rule 50 and the medal ceremony are both counter to the humanism of Olympism.

3 years ago

Rule 50 is also hypocrisy when one considers that the Olympic medal ceremony itself is a blatant demonstration of political propaganda, where nations – national ideologies – serve as proxies for individual or team achievement. Both are antithetical to the core humanism of Olympism.

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