Whilst not quite celebrated with the same parochial fervour as witnessed the opening ceremony of London 2012, you will not have failed to notice that the twenty second Winter Olympics, in Sochi, began last week. Snowboarder Jenny Jones received much of the media coverage on the first weekend, winning GB’s first medal of the Sochi Games and, indeed, becoming the first Briton to win a medal on the snow in the process, but the media coverage in the previous weeks has been less about the sport, and more about the context to the Games. Human rights are often problematised when it comes to the Olympics, in Beijing for example much was made of the Chinese human rights record and whether this was in accordance with the Fundamental Principles of Olympism, and similar claims have been made as regards Rio.
- This article is by Mark James, a law professor at Northumbria University (HERE), and Guy Osborn (HERE)
- Picture from Flickr, by jontangerine, under creative comms
With Sochi, one of the most prominent issues has the been the impact of the Russian legislation restricting statements that are deemed to promote non-traditional sexual relations to minors under Article 6.21 of the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offences. This has been categorised as ‘Putin’s anti-gay law’, and is reminiscent of our own Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which whilst now repealed, similarly sought to outlaw the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality is schools, and ‘no-promo-homo’ laws in certain states in the United States.
As a result of this the Sochi Games has been subject to calls for its boycott, with a number of protests ensuing, an issue we have examined elsewhere in the context of the Principle 6 campaign and its possible link to ambush marketing. In a broader sense, the role of protest at the Games is often very visible and very contested.
Debbie Sadd has recently written a piece on the history of protests at the Olympic Games as part of Vassil Girginov’s excellent and ambitious two volume handbook on London 2012. Here Sadd provides a timely overview and typology of the protests that have occurred in the past, noting that protest goes back as far as the Ancient Games, in what might be termed Olympics BC (Before Coubertin), where women were barred from not only competing, but spectating as well. Her overview of more recent events includes various nation state protests and political allegiance protests in the early part of the twentieth century, before the more global political protests of the post-war period, including the black power salute performed by Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium at Mexico 68. Sadd illustrates how the forms of protest have evolved, from the terrorism of Munich, via the East-West and Cold War boycotts between 1976 and 1992 and up to the more recent human rights protests at Sydney and Beijing. Her analysis concludes by examining the emergence of cyber-protests and the fragmentation of protest at London 2012 with various groups pushing particular issues rather than an overarching theme, as was also the case at Vancouver 2010.
At Sochi, it is interesting to examine how protest is policed. For the athletes, the Olympic Charter Rule 50(3) provides that ‘no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted’ at Olympic sites, venues or other accredited areas. This includes displaying such ‘propaganda’ on clothing and equipment, and has already been used to prevent Canadian athletes from paying tribute to teammate Sarah Burke, who died in training two years ago. This same provision, Rule 50 Bye-law 1 Olympic Charter, could also be used to prevent athletes from displaying rainbow flags, painted nails, or even Principle 6 alignment, should the IOC wish to condemn such conduct.
This is not just for competing athletes.
In the venues, ticket holders will have stringent conditions imposed upon them, embedded within the conditions of entry to the venue. Typically, this will include an exclusion of flags of nations who are not competing and a prohibition on other political, religious or other actions which might be seen as propaganda (of course there is also a commercial dimension here too, where these restrictions cover the issue of ambush marketing but that’s another story!).
Such protests are supposed to take place in the oxymoronic ‘Official Protest Zones’, the closest of which is located some 7 miles from the nearest Olympic venue at Sochi.
Whilst protest and its control are pertinent to debates on the infringement of the freedoms of speech, assembly and peaceful protest, a broader question relates to the relationship between the Olympic Movement (OM) and prospective host cities and nations who want to organise and host an edition of the Games. A recent report from Swedwatch, The Olympic Violations, has examined human rights issues at and around Olympic Games and concluded that rather than relying on the IOC and the OM to prevent these abuses, the onus should shift instead to the sponsors. As they are essential to the Games as sources of funding, their input could pressurise the OM to adopt a human rights policy that engages with UN Conventions on human rights and ILO core conventions on labour standards. Sponsors could use their financial leverage to make this happen by threatening to withdraw funding where the OM’s failure to engage with such universal basic protections compromises their own compliance with these Conventions. By requiring reciprocal compliance from the OM as a whole, including the IOC, National Olympic Committees and local organising committees, changes could in turn be imposed on the host states to improve their own human rights performance.
Although unlikely to be taken on board wholesale and become an Olympic reality in the short term, the Report raises pertinent issues about the relationship between the IOC and host countries. It is these more creative forms of protest and pressurising that could lead to the possibility of host Cities and states being required to adhere to the same standards that the IOC claims for itself in the Olympic Charter. For now, and certainly at the Sochi Games, protest will be largely occluded.
Guy is a professor in the Westminster Law School at the University of Westminster, and formerly an adjunct Professor at the Department of Sociology and Political Science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway. Follow him on Twitter @prof_guy_osborn