Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee (TTOC) president Brian Lewis is advocating the case for the revamping of an existing clause of an IOC rule that bans demonstration and propaganda. He said the re-working of the rule requires a modernised re-think to reflect the realities of the current world.
Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
Lewis, also the Caribbean Association of National Olympic Committees (CANOC) president, made the argument in a newsletter entitled Sport Intern, an Olympic news digest and international inside sports document considered one of the most influential journals that has a high readership among global sports decision makers and members of the IOC hierarchy.
Lewis argued that rule 50.2 specifically, which bans demonstrations and propaganda, should be reviewed and replaced because it may be inconsistent with the UN Declaration on Human Rights policy that allows for free expression during ceremonies.
“It has been claimed that Rule 50 is needed to keep the Olympic Games free of political propaganda. It has also been claimed that demonstrations on the field of play are counter to the Olympic ideals and disrespectful of fellow athletes. I would argue the opposite,” Lewis stated. “If the fundamental principles of Olympism include the educational value of good example and social responsibility, then surely the iconic image created by John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Peter Norman is a great case of Olympism in action.”
Lewis rejected the claim that sport is free of politics, a claim, he says, that does not stand up to scrutiny.
“Especially on racial issues. Think of the sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa, for example. For more recent political engagement, think of the laudable efforts regarding North and South Korea. Think of the alignment with the United Nations,” Lewis enumerated, “Sport cannot, however, pick and choose only the political issues and campaigns it might like.”
He added the IOC is closely aligned with the United Nations, but many athletes feel that Rule 50 denies them their right to freedom of opinion and expression as clearly defined under article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The former Trinidad and Tobago Rugby Football Union secretary said the UN’s article 19 doesn’t open the door to allowing just anything being said and that article 29 makes it clear that freedoms may not be used contrary to the principles of the United Nations.
“The UN Charter clarifies the meaning of rights and duties, then leaves it to the individual to do the right thing. So, taking a knee to highlight racial injustice that is against the UN and Olympic principles, would be permitted. Performing the Nazi salute would not. The IOC speaks about athletes first and being all about the athletes, so it is no surprise that some feel that Rule 50 seeks to oppress the human rights of athletes to freedom of expression.”
Lewis added the Olympic Charter advocates the use of sport and the Olympic values to make the world a better place, a tough proposition for societies that have faced and continue to confront historic and systemic racism and gender discrimination.
“The Olympic Charter calls on the IOC to oppose any political or commercial abuse of sport and athletes. By maintaining and retaining such a narrow interpretation of Rule 50, the IOC runs the risk of flying in the face of the Olympic Charter,” he countered.
With the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, Lewis thinks the time is appropriate for sporting organisations to be seen to be “relevant, authentic and responsive.”
He said these institutions have been accused of being patriarchal, Euro-centric and reflecting the European domination of the world which, for 400 years since the 17th century, imposed the idea that “black, coloured, first and indigenous peoples, together with all women, are merely property, devoid of the same rights as the male master race.”
“Many understand this to be the thinking that institutionalised systemic racism and gender discrimination,” he said, adding that the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco has removed the statue of former IOC president Avery Brundage after acknowledging that Brundage held racist and anti-Semitic views.
He advocated that constitutions, rules, regulations and statutes are “living documents” that must embrace the changing realities of society, including jettisoning outdated ways of thinking and behaving.
“In so many respects, the Olympic Games are a shining beacon. The exposure they provide for women’s sport, the opportunities they provide for athletes of least developed countries, the support and hope they provide for refugees - these are all examples of the good they can do,” Lewis stated. “There is now a perfect opportunity to do more.”