To What Extent Do The Athletes Have Freedom of Expression?
Written by Naman Khanna*
Sport transcends race, faith, class, language, politics, and many other factors. One of the valuable strengths of sports is its ability to unite people, and as a result, professional players have a unique and far-reaching platform from which they can make a significant positive influence on society. Utilizing professional sport as a device to support equality as well as promote awareness for social injustice is not new with numerous athletes expressing themselves over the years historically. In the modern era, we've seen a rising number of professional athletes use their position to raise awareness and promote reform through on- and off-the-field initiatives, such as adopting new forms of social media and other platforms to convey their intended messages.
The International Olympic Committee's (IOC) Athletes' Commission (AC) obtained complete approval from the IOC Executive Board for a series of proposals in respect to Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter concerning Athlete Expression during the Olympic Games on April 21, 2021.[i] This occurred almost a year after the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games were delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic[ii], and nearly a year after the IOC and AC had a comprehensive qualitative and quantitative consultation process with over 3,500 athletes from across the world to revise Rule 50.[iii] Rule 50, which states that no kind of protest or political, religious, or radical propaganda is allowed at any Olympic sites, venues, or other areas[iv] has been regarded by the IOC since the new guidelines were introduced in January 2020 as a way to protect the neutrality and sovereignty of sport and the Olympic Games. To put it another way, the Olympics are a time to honour sport, and any political action or demonstration may jeopardize their 'glory'.
DEMONSTRATIONS BY ATHLETES OVER THE YEARS
Tommie Smith and John Carlos' contentious raising of black-gloved fists on the victors' podium at the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games is one of the most famous images of protest and demonstration against racial inequality in the twentieth century. Australian runner Peter Norman, like Carlos and Smith, wore a badge from the Olympic Project for Human Rights on his uniform, a group formed and consisting of renowned Olympic sportsmen to expose the persecution of Black athletes in America. Mr Carlos and Mr Smith were forced to quit the games and were dismissed from the US National Team as a result.[v] They are now honoured in the IOC museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, which is ironic, to say the least.
A tournament preceding the Tokyo Olympics, the recently concluded Euro 2021 also witnessed numerous players expressing their stances on various topics and movements. Before the start of matches, the England team, like others, took a knee to protest racial injustice.[vi] Additionally, both Harry Kane and Manuel Neuer wore rainbow bands on their arms during the England against Germany match as a show of support for LGBTQ+ people.[vii] Controversially, UEFA forbade Germany from illuminating the Allianz Arena in rainbow colours before their match against Hungary, citing political considerations as the reason. After scoring the game-winning goal, German midfielder Leon Goretzka celebrated by forming a heart sign with his hands in front of the Hungarian supporters[viii], a move widely perceived as a dig at UEFA's stance.
THE RATIONALE BEHIND RULE 50
Gwen Berry and Race Imboden, two American athletes, voiced symbolic protests when they took the podium to receive gold medals during the 2019 Lima Pan-American Games. Fencer Race Imboden kneeled and hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised her fist at the Lima Sports Festival citing racism, the lack of gun control laws and the injustice against immigrants as the main reasons.[ix] Following the demonstrations, USOPC (United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee) CEO Sarah Hirshland handed both athletes letters of reprimand and placed them on a 12-month probationary period but cautioned them as well as their teammates that any subsequent acts of protest would be faced with harsher penalties. While repercussions for political protests at Olympic Games have long been in existence, the new Rule 50 Guidelines were definitely influenced by the U.S. athletes' demonstrations during the 2019 Pan-Am Games. The IOC did not want any politically driven disruptions during the Tokyo Games, and at least some of this is motivated not only by Rule 50 is declared objective, but also by the IOC's financial interests. The organizers and host nations depend upon financial investment from television companies and corporate sponsorships, who might just withdraw as a result of these protests.
LEGAL INTERPRETATION OF RULE 50: WHAT CAN AND CAN’T THE ATHLETES DO?
As stated above earlier, Rule 50.2 of the Charter states that no kind of protest or political, religious, or radical propaganda is allowed at any Olympic sites, venues, or other areas. However, the IOC has significantly eased the regulations for Olympic demonstrations. In short, Rule 50.2 Guidelines now enable athletes to “express their views” in press conferences, social media posts, and on the playing area prior to the commencement of the competition.[x] This is a significant shift in the IOC's position, which had traditionally taken a hard line against any form of protest or demonstration during the Olympics. The amendment was adopted after the IOC Athletes' Commission completed a quantitative assessment in June 2020, which included a poll of 3,500 athletes[xi] and suggestions from prominent sports and human rights attorneys.
The IOC in these guidelines summarily states that even though freedom of speech and expression is a globally acknowledged basic human right, it is not unqualified or absolute and encompasses certain obligations and responsibilities. The Guidelines make it clear that voicing one’s views outside of Olympic sites or venues, as well as before and after the games is not included. Furthermore, there appears to be a considerable degree of freedom in terms of opinions stated on social media and in interviews, which might make these channels appealing to athletes who want to make a political statement while minimizing the danger of violating the Charter.
The IOC, on the other hand, has imposed particular limitations for demonstrations on the field of play. The Guidelines allow athletes to protest "on the field of play prior to the commencement of competition" and also state that protests conducted after leaving the call room or even during the presentation of an individual athlete or team should be permissible as long as they follow the additional limitations. It therefore can be interpreted that protests at a ceremony, an event, or the presenting ceremony will be forbidden, according to the Guidelines, and will almost certainly be in violation of Rule 50.2. Thus, Leon Goretzka’s heart celebration in Euro 2020 would have been in violation had it been done in the Olympics because it was done during the course of the event.
Additionally, the Guidelines impose specific limitations on on-field demonstrations. Athletes should consider principles like "social responsibility," "respect for global fundamental ethical standards," "humane development," and "human dignity" and make certain that their protest is in line with them. Athletes who want to protest for causes that aren't clearly founded on widely acknowledged human rights should examine if their actions are consistent with the values outlined in the principles. Protests that are "targeted" are also prohibited by the Guidelines. This implies that athletes can only make political remarks on broad topics, such as injustice in general. Athletes must be cautious not to direct their protests to specific people, countries, or organizations involved in the wrongdoing. Germany's attempt to light up the Allianz Arena in rainbow colours ahead of their match against Hungary[xii] would likely have been regarded as a targeted protest since it was in protest to anti-LGBTQ+ laws approved by the Hungarian government. Athletes should make their demonstrations non-specific, concentrating on the issue rather than the individuals, nations, or governments involved. Any remarks, gestures, or other acts targeted specifically towards other athletes or the nations they represent would be the most severe infringement of the Charter.
Protests also must not be "disruptive," meaning athletes should ensure that their demonstrations do not interfere with the event or the other participants. Demonstrations made during another player's or team's presentation or introduction are considered as disruptive, according to the Guidelines, since they may impede the other participants' focus and preparedness for the event. As a result, athletes should consider how they can make a strong and forceful statement while causing minimal disruption.
The Charter outlines the sanctions and consequences that may be imposed if an athlete or team violates the Charter, including permanent or temporary ineligibility or expulsion from the Olympic Games, disqualification, and the forfeiture of any medals won in relation to the violation.[xiii] The magnitude of these sanctions, along with the IOC's preceding reactions to demonstrations, emphasize the need of athletes to carefully consider the Charter and guidelines while contemplating a protest during the Olympics.
CONCLUSION: THE IMPORTANCE OF ATHLETES SPEAKING OUT
The Olympics have long proven how sports can bring people together, but they are not immune to the world events that affect Olympic competitors on a daily basis. Rule 50, as established by the IOC Executive Board for the 2020 Games, may be seen as a response to the increasing rise of athlete activism in the modern era. Rule 50 on the face of it appears to safeguard the Olympics from "divisiveness," yet it simply serves to amplify the legitimate critique that the IOC misrepresents the athletes' voices who make the Olympics happen. It should be stressed, however, that Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter does not preclude freedom of expression completely. Outside of Olympic venues, athletes have the ability to voice their ideas through news conferences and interviews, team meetings, internet or traditional media, or other forums, according to the IOC Athletes' Commission's Rule 50 Guidelines. Outside of Olympic sites, any protest or demonstration must, of course, adhere to local regulations where such acts are prohibited.
I personally believe that anybody with a platform and a captive audience should do everything they can to get their message of change out there. Whether it be Lebron James speaking out against police brutality[xiv], Saina Nehwal on the farmers' protests[xv] or Sunil Chettri on the north-eastern citizens being subjected to racism since the start of the pandemic[xvi], athletes have started speaking out. As a fan, if my favourite player expresses himself on an issue he believes in, it will have a great influence and impact on me. The Olympics have imposed certain restrictions on the freedom of expression of the athletes but as described and analysed above, there are still ways in which an athlete can spread his or her message on the biggest sporting stage.
*The author is a law scholar of Symbiosis Law School, Pune.
(The image used here is for representational purposes only)
[i] International Olympic Committee, 'IOC Athletes’ Commission’s recommendations on Rule 50 and Athlete Expression at the Olympic Games fully endorsed by the IOC Executive Board', April 21, 2021, available at https://olympics.com/ioc/news/ioc-athletes-commission-s-recommendations-on-rule-50-and-athlete-expression-at-the-olympic-games (last accessed on July 25, 2020). [ii] ‘Scroll’, It’s official: Tokyo Olympics, postponed due to Covid-19 pandemic, to now start on July 23 in 2021, March 30, 2020, available at https://scroll.in/field/957698/postponed-due-to-coronavirus-pandemic-tokyo-olympics-to-start-on-july-23-in-2021-report, (last accessed on July 25, 2020). [iii] Running Magazine, 'Athlete poll supports Rule 50, IOC to punish protestors at Tokyo Olympics', April 21, 2021, available at https://runningmagazine.ca/the-scene/athlete-poll-supports-rule-50-ioc-to-punish-protestors-at-tokyo-olympics/, (last accessed on July 25, 2020). [iv] The International Olympic Charter, Rule 50.2, available at https://stillmed.olympic.org/media/Document%20Library/OlympicOrg/General/EN-Olympic-Charter.pdf, (last accessed on July 25, 2020). [v] The Washington Post, 'The Black Power protest salute that shook the world in 1968', September 24, 2017, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/09/24/they-didnt-takeaknee-the-black-power-protest-salute-that-shook-the-world-in-1968/, (last accessed on July 25, 2020). [vi] India Today, 'England players to take a knee at Euro 2020: We are totally united on it, says manager Gareth Southgate', June 6, 2021, available at https://www.indiatoday.in/sports/football/story/black-lives-matter-england-players-to-take-a-knee-at-euro-2020-1811423-2021-06-06, (last accessed on July 26, 2020). [vii] Sky Sports, 'Harry Kane and Manuel Neuer to wear rainbow armbands for England vs Germany at Euro 2020', June 29, 2021, available at https://www.skysports.com/football/news/19692/12344325/harry-kane-and-manuel-neuer-to-wear-rainbow-armbands-for-england-vs-germany-at-euro-2020, (last accessed on July 26, 2020). [viii] The Indian Paper, 'Germany-Hungary: Goretzka celebration in support of the LGBT+ community', June 24, 2021, available at https://www.theindianpaper.com/germany-hungary-goretzka-celebration-in-support-of-the-lgbt-community/ (last accessed on July 26, 2020). [ix] The Chicago Tribune, 'Race Imboden kneels and Gwen Berry raises her fist: Americans protest on the medals stand at the Pan Am Games', August 11, 2019, available at https://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/breaking/ct-race-imboden-gwen-berry-athlete-protest-20190811-gceardedn5fyjclxim5b7qexta-story.html, (last accessed on July 26, 2020). [x] International Olympic Committee, Rule 50.2 Guidelines- Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, available at https://olympics.com/athlete365/app/uploads/2021/07/Rule-50.2-Guidelines-Olympic-Games-Tokyo-2020-Final.pdf, (last accessed on July 26, 2020). [xi] Supra note 1. [xii] The Guardian, 'Calls to light Allianz Arena in rainbow colours after Hungary anti-LGBTQ+ law', June 20, 2021, available at https://www.theguardian.com/football/2021/jun/20/calls-to-light-allianz-arena-in-rainbow-colours-after-hungary-anti-lgbtq-law, (last accessed on July 29, 2020). [xiii] The International Olympic Charter, Rule 59.2, available at https://stillmed.olympic.org/media/Document%20Library/OlympicOrg/General/EN-Olympic-Charter.pdf (last accessed on July 29, 2020). [xiv] Los Angeles Times, 'LeBron James on speaking out against police brutality: I never condone violence', September 22, 2020, available at https://www.latimes.com/sports/lakers/story/2020-09-22/lebron-james-police-brutality-comments-violence-social-equality, (last accessed on August 2, 2020). [xv] ESPN, 'Farmers' protests bring athletes out into social media commentariat', February 13, 2020, available at https://www.espn.in/espn/story/_/id/30890952/india-farmers-protests-bring-athletes-social-media-commentariat (last accessed on August 2, 2020). [xvi] The Week, COVID-19: Sunil Chhetri speaks out on racism against people from the Northeast, April 3, 2020, available at https://www.theweek.in/news/sports/2020/04/03/covid-19-sunil-chhetri-speak-out-on-racism-against-people-from-the-northeast.html, (last accessed on August 2, 2020).