The International Olympic Committee between aspiration and reality
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is currently not in an enviable position. Not only has the postponement of the Olympic Games to this year, a first in the modern Olympics’ history, resulted in colossal economic and financial stakes for the organization and the host country Japan, but the IOC is also confronted with controversial debates around the involvement in sports diplomacy and severe human rights violations directly related to its member associations. The past shows that the IOC is often too reactive when it comes to heated political arguments and responds to specific issues only when being asked.
The public discussion on the dual role of Belarusian prime minister and National Olympic Committee (NOC) president Alexander Lukaschenko have shown the need for a renewed clarification of the autonomy of sport. While Belarusian athletes were leading the protest with an open letter to the government against the results of the election process in August 2020, recognized by the EU as electoral fraud and the violent repression of protests, the IOC has long been silent despite the imprisonment and demonstrated torture of athletes. Unlike the world football federation FIFA, the Olympic Movement does not yet have a differentiated human rights policy that proposes recommended actions in such cases. At least the Olympic Charter provides the mention of "promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity".
If these principles were taken seriously, critics argue, no Olympics should have been held in Russia, where sexual minorities are discriminated against, nor in China, where the Uighur religious community is oppressed. Confronted with such accusations, the IOC President, Thomas Bach, has in the past reacted in an interview with the German radio station Deutschlandfunk: "The responsibility of the IOC relates to the Olympic Games. We are not a world government that can make sure that a sovereign country passes laws, complies with certain standards." Although he has a point, in other cases he has taken a different stance. For instance, Bach argues that the IOC should get credit for opening the door to peace talks between South and North Korea after the Korean athletes marched under the unified flag in the Olympic Winter Games in 2018. In addition to that, the IOC possesses Permanent Observer status at the UN since 2009, allowing the organization to be directly involved in the UN Agenda and to attend UN General Assembly meetings. Politics and sports have always been deeply intertwined and the IOC needs an honest and constructive debate on how it will react to future conflicts in this domain.
One of the resurgent questions is how to deal with the third execution of an elite athlete in Iran since September 2020. Rob Koehler, director-general of Global Athlete, told the Jerusalem Post: “The International Olympic Committee must act now. Their silence has left them complicit. Their lack of action clearly indicates they favor stakeholders over athlete rights.” It is the same pattern that could be observed in the case of Belarus: athlete organizations and human rights organizations call out the IOC to respond, while the latter communicates that the incidents fall outside of its area of responsibility.
With the official statement of the 7th December 2020, excluding Alexander Lukaschenko and members of the NOC from all IOC events and activities, the IOC has once more reacted to international stakeholder pressure. It remains to be hoped that the IOC will move forward from being a reactive organization to proactively deliver a “service of the harmonious development of humankind”, as declared in Fundamental Principle 2 of the Olympic Charter. The Olympic Movement owes this to its most important stakeholders: the athletes.
M.Sc. in Sports Management, University of Bordeaux