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Olympic Committee Tries Once Again to Separate Politics from Sports


IOC President Thomas Bach poses for a photo with Japanese junior high school student Yui Hashimoto, right, and Yuto Tojima, second from left, and Miraitowa, mascot of Tokyo 2020 during a Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 One year to Go ceremony event in Tokyo, Wednesday, July 24, 2019.
Olympic Committee Tries Once Again to Separate Politics From Sports
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The International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced this month that athletes are barred from making political statements at Olympic events. It said banned actions can include making hand signs and bending down on one knee during medal ceremonies and competition.

The warning came as part of new guidelines for rule 50 of the Olympic Charter – the set of rules governing the Olympic movement. The guidelines state: “It is a fundamental principle that sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference.”

The president of the IOC, Thomas Bach, noted: “The eyes of the world will be on the athletes and the Olympic games.” The Associated Press reported his comments.

Kirsty Coventry is head of the IOC Athletes’ Commission. She said the goal of the announcement is to bring clarity to an issue that has been around for a long time.

Other areas where political statements are not permitted include the field of play, at the Olympic village and during the opening and closing ceremonies.

The IOC added that athletes may “express their opinions” at press conferences, in team meetings and on digital media while observing local laws.

Many years of dispute

Last year, two athletes from the United States used medal ceremonies at the Pan American Games to make what U.S. officials considered political statements. The head of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee criticized Gwen Berry, who specializes in the hammer throw, and fencer Race Imboden. The two were ordered on probation for 12 months for their actions at the games in Lima, Peru.

Possibly the most famous example of athletes making political statements came at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. U.S. track and field medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised one fist in the air in what many thought to be a sign of black power.

The IOC barred the two from competing for the remainder of the Mexico City Games.

The athletes’ commission said any punishment for breaking the rules would be given “on a case-by-case basis as necessary.” It said that sports organizations and the athletes’ national governing bodies will have the power to decide the severity of the punishment.

Critics of the IOC policy to limit protests, however, say it is still not clear and not different from the group’s stated policy for many years. Rule 50 of the Olympic charter states that: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted.” It also bans advertising unless permitted by the IOC.

The release of the guidelines takes place at a time when television broadcasts and social media enable athletes to send out messages faster and farther. Two recent examples are former American football player Colin Kaepernick and Megan Rapinoe, a star of the U.S. women’s national soccer team.

However, critics argue that the IOC does not make clear who will make judgments in individual cases. They also say the guidelines do not say who has the responsibility of carrying out punishment for breaking the rules.

Political history

Politics have appeared in the Olympic Games many times over the years. Yet the stated goal of the Olympic Movement was to keep sports and politics separate. Critics note that Germany, under Adolph Hitler, held the Olympic Games in 1936. They also point to the way former IOC President Avery Brundage dealt with South Africa during its period of racial separation, known as apartheid.

Politics caused many Americans to stay away from the Olympics 40 years ago when the U.S. team boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games. The United States was protesting the invasion of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union. Four years later, the Soviet team boycotted the Olympics held in Los Angeles, California.

Critics of the latest guidelines say they appear to dispute or make less clear the purpose of the games.

The Charter states: “The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced in accordance with Olympism and its values.”

Possibly with that idea in mind, IOC President Thomas Bach had his picture taken with American and Iranian athletes at the Youth Olympic Games earlier this month.

The Tokyo Olympic Games are set to begin on July 24. More than 10,000 athletes from more than 200 nations and territories will compete in an event watched by hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

I’m Kelly Jean Kelly. And I'm Mario Ritter, Jr.

The Associated Press wrote this story. Mario Ritter Jr. adapted it with additional information from the International Olympic Committee for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

fundamental –adj. relating to the most important part of something

principle –n. a basic truth of idea that forms the basis of a belief

digitaladj. involving or related to computer technology

probation –n. a period of time when a person who has made a serious mistake is watched and must behave well

fist - n. a person’s hand when the fingers are bent in toward the middle of the hand and held there tightly

contribute –n. to give something to help a cause or group

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