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The IOC Might Want to Read the Whole Olympic Charter

As a pastor, I’m used to reading texts closely, taking them phrase by phrase and parsing out the multiple layers of meaning. I do this with religious texts and also with secular documents, from mortgage forms to SCOTUS opinions to presidential speeches. Words matter, and people who play fast and loose with them, or who don’t treat them with respect, really irritate me.

Like these people:

The International Olympic Committee on Wednesday reaffirmed to the Washington Blade it will not allow athletes who compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics to publicly challenge Russia’s gay propaganda to minors ban during the games.

The IOC referred the Blade to a portion of the Olympic Charter adopted in 2001 that states “no form of publicity or propaganda, commercial or otherwise, may appear on persons, on sportswear, accessories or, more generally, on any article of clothing or equipment whatsoever worn or used by the athletes or other participants in the Olympic Games” outside of a manufacturer’s logo.

“This rule has been in place for many years and aims to separate sport from politics, honor the context of the Olympic games and ensure the peaceful gathering of athletes from over 200 nations, officials and spectators from all kinds of different cultures and backgrounds,” the IOC told the Blade in a statement. “By its nature, the Olympic games cannot become a platform for any kind of demonstration and the IOC will not accept any proactive gesture that could harm their spirit and jeopardize their future.”

The language above comes from Bye-law 1 of Rule 50 (“Advertising, Demonstrations, and Propaganda”) in Chapter 5 (“Celebration, Organisation and Administration of the Olympic Games”) , otherwise known as “The Fine Print.”(Love the British spellings!) Much of Rule 50 revolves around who decides who can profit from the use of the Olympic emblems. That Bye-law is aimed at protecting sponsors — if McDonalds is the Official Fast Food Dispenser of the Olympic Games, you can’t put out propaganda for In-and-Out Tofu or Falafel King. The fact that the IOC would cite it in this context reveals a great deal about their priorities.

But way up at the top, at the very beginning, before you even get to Rule 1 in Chapter 1, are the Fundamentals of the Olympic Movement. You know, the things that Really Matter. The things that Matter A Whole Lot.

Things like these:

1. 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.

“Blending sport with culture . . .” seems to say that digging a moat around the Olympic Village and creating a temporary “politics-free” island is not what the Charter has in mind. See also “good example, social responsibility, and respect.” (And keep watching for that last word. It’s kind of important here.)

2. The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

The Russian toleration for violence and abuse aimed at gays and lesbians seems to run counter to “. . . promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”. Somehow, this does not appear terribly dignified, let alone peaceful. And the notion that sport serves the promotion of peace pokes a hole in the idea that sport needs to take a back seat to those terribly undignified practices.

3. The Olympic Movement is the concerted, organised, universal and permanent action, carried out under the supreme authority of the IOC, of all individuals and entities who are inspired by the values of Olympism. It covers the five continents. It reaches its peak with the bringing together of the world’s athletes at the great sports festival, the Olympic Games. Its symbol is five interlaced rings.

What motivates the Olympic movement is universal, not subject to the whims of one nation. The Olympic Movement, says the Charter, does not change its tune with each new set of Games.

4. The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.

Here’s the meat of things, as far as the protests against Russia go. “The practice of sport is a human right.” It’s not a prize that is granted by the political leaders of the host nation — or by the IOC! — for good behavior. It is a right that is a given, and it is given to all. “Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind . . .” Not some individuals, or a few individuals, or many individuals, or most individuals, but every single one of them. There’s no asterisk that says “no gays allowed” or “gays must be closeted” or “gays must at least be not quite so absolutely fabulous as to cause others to notice them.” The Charter is pretty clear: “WITHOUT DISCRIMINATION OF ANY KIND.”

And yes, threats of arrest are considered discriminatory.

Moving on . . .

5. Recognising that sport occurs within the framework of society, sports organisations within the Olympic Movement shall have the rights and obligations of autonomy, which include freely establishing and controlling the rules of sport, determining the structure and governance of their organisations, enjoying the right of elections free from any outside influence and the responsibility for ensuring that principles of good governance be applied.

Sports federations ought to govern their sports, free from interference from outsiders. So when the winter sports federations say “no discrimination” that must be respected.

6. 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.

Notice that “or otherwise”? By that standard, Russia has placed themselves outside the Olympics.

7. Belonging to the Olympic Movement requires compliance with the Olympic Charter and recognition by the IOC.

Lest anyone get the idea that I don’t think The Fine Print is important, let’s take a look at subpoint 3 of Rule 33 of Chapter 5: “The Election of a Host City”, which expands upon this seventh Fundamental Principle of the Olympic Movement:

The National Government of the country of any applicant city must submit to the IOC a legally binding instrument by which the said government undertakes and guarantees that the country and its public authorities will comply with and respect the Olympic Charter.

Can you say #OlympicFAIL? Sure you can. The Olympic Charter is clear: “You want to discriminate, Russia? You want to turn a blind eye to gay-bashing? That’s up to you, but you can’t do it while you wave our Olympic flag.”

Hosting the Olympics is a matter of respect. It’s about respect for the universal nature of sport. It’s about respect for the equal humanity of all. It’s about respect for all those who come from other nations. It’s about respect for human rights, especially the right to play. It’s about respect for the federations that govern their particular sports. It’s about respect every person, gay, straight, or otherwise. It’s about respect for The Games.

It’s about respect.

(On the local level here in the US, there’s at least someone at the USOC who gets this, though there are apparently others who do not.)

And if the IOC had any self-respect, they’d read their Charter and offer Putin a simple choice. “Either the law goes, or the Games go.” And they’d give him until October 1 to decide. Meanwhile, they’d also be talking to various past host cities, to get a backup plan in place.

In the run-up to the 1964 Games in Rome, the IOC offered South Africa this kind of choice, and for more than two decades, the South Africans chose apartheid over sport. Apparently once upon a time, the IOC leadership used to read their own charter, and at least tried to get nations who wanted to complete to comply with it. Maybe with a little more pushing from around the world, they’ll read it again — and this time starting at the beginning, not in The Fine Print.

I don’t expect the Russians to back down on this, and I don’t think the IOC believes that they will either. Sadly, the IOC seems to have chosen to side with the Russian government rather than the worldwide community of athletes, figuring that it’s easier to get the athletes to shut up and skate/ski/shoot/do whatever it is they do, than to get Putin to back down.

But that’s a false choice. The real choice is simple: does the IOC want to sanction competitions in a site that conflicts with their core fundamental convictions, or are they willing to move the games?

Put me down for “Move the Games”. I respect the Olympics too much to want them held in a nation that beats up on its gay and lesbian citizens, let alone any gay or lesbian guests.


h/t to Adrian 8_8 for the photo of the Olympic rings in Vancouver, which doesn’t have any problem at all with lgbts, whether as visitors or residents, no matter how publicly absolutely fabulous and political they may be.

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.