Editorial – Global Athlete, the representative group battling for the rights of sportsmen and sportswomen, has accused the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) of publicly threatening athletes with the removal of accreditation at the Asian Games in China should they decide to exercise their fundamental right to freedom of expression.
In a statement, Global Athlete notes that Olympic governors point always in one way on the issue of human rights: their finger wags forever at democratic nations whose athletes must remain silent, an act that puts a smile on the face of every dictator out there sports washing their way to positions of authority in an Olympic realm supposedly apolitical and yet up to its neck in politics. The culture, caught on camera on many occasions, stretches to quaffing and deal-making with extremely dangerous leaders and their entourages.
The OCA is steeped in controversy. Even the International Olympic Committee (IOC) threatened it over recent elections, which saw World Aquatics leader Husain Al-Musallam defeated by the brother (Talal) of the ousted and disgraced Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait in a vote for the presidency. That vote led to related disputes within Kuwait, which sources say underpin stories of Al-Musallam taking Hungarian citizenship as World Aquatics prepares to move its headquarters from Lausanne, the Olympic city in Switzerland, to Budapest and into the jurisdiction of EU law.
What the OCA stands accused of now, the IOC stood accused of during the Beijing Winter Olympics during the state silencing of tennis star Peng Shuai as world condemnation poured in. That story of coercion unfolded before the doping controversy of ice skater Kamila Valieva, a 15-year-old placed on the wrong path nay the entourage around her, and on the cusp of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine during the Olympic Truce, the act that led to the Russia leader being stripped of the Olympic Order.
Meaning… Putin was shamed by the Movement only when he broke the Olympic Truce. War, murder, atrocities galore … all would have led to business as usual if only Vlad would have waited a few more days to instruct his troops to cross a line that ought to lead to all Russians remaining outside the international sports arena until the last Russian soldier, gun, bomb and related paraphernalia of propaganda exit Ukraine.
The IOC and the OCA are among those in the Olympic Movement who claim that politics should play no part in sport. A fine principle, if only it reflected the behaviour of the IOC, OCA and others who have made a habit of quaffing with the rich and powerful of world politics as a priority over athlete rights for decades. Not even the illegal war on Ukraine has stopped the IOC from adhering to its mantra, omertà in tow, of “one world, at all costs” as long as the world leaves Olympic ‘autonomy’ untouched.
The trouble with that stance is that autonomy has been responsible for horrid outcomes for athletes for far too many decades, while the notion of neutrality is both sick and false when dealing with human rights abuse, an illegal war on a sovereign nation whose citizens have been murdered, whose infrastructure has been demolished and whose athletes have had to flee their homes to live abroad while leaving family members at home to defend their nation.
Human rights are cited by the IOC when it comes to the inclusion of biological males in female sport even though the reasons why much of sport is sex-based and is accompanied by sex-based Fair Play rules and charters have been with us since the misogynistic Pierre de Coubertin was metaphorically beating women back with a stick at the dawn of the modern Games in 1896.
But mention human rights in relation to an illegal war and murder of innocent citizens, the bombing of infrastructure, including sports facilities, and acts that make refugees of athletes? Snap when much of the world and human rights organisations condemn China’s mishandling of the Uyghurs? Well, in such circumstances, athletes are supposed to keep their opinion to themselves and just agree to shake hands on it with athletes from the aggressor nations who hail from countries where they cannot express their opinion of a war they cannot even call a war without risk to liberty (at the very least).
Newly rebranded European Aquatics gets much of that, or at least a majority of its leaders do: the group voted last Friday to keep Russians and Belarussians out of the continent’s competitions, against the trend at World Aquatics.
Silence and neutrality in the face of such things takes us right back to Berlin 1936 and stadia awash with swastikas, brown boots and a little madman with a moustache and a big smile on his face at the sight of IOC members Sieg Heil-ing the Nazi salute.
Why do such attitudes prevail in Olympic governance? Because the IOC wants to do business with dictators willing to shell out a ton of money on hosting the governors and their various Games, perhaps. It seems a reasonable conclusion to come to.
The Global Athlete statement on the Olympic Council of Asia
18 September 2023: With less than a week before the start of the Asian Games in China, the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) has publicly threatened athletes with the removal of accreditation should they decide to exercise their fundamental right to freedom of expression.
The OCA’s archaic approach to limiting athletes’ rights to freedom of expression is a clear demonstration that sport systems continue to believe they can operate in silo without adherence to globally accepted human rights. This decision from the OCA appears to favour China’s authoritarian rule of law that rejects freedom of expression over every athlete’s civil liberties.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression; this right includes freedom to impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The Asian Games is a media of communication to the world, and the organisation’s leadership cannot be a barrier to human rights.
Global Athlete hopes every athlete attending the Asian Games uses the United Nations Human Rights Declaration to guide their decision on when and where to exercise their right to stand up for social and racial injustices that they wish to support. Outdated “sport rules” should never supersede basic human rights.
If athletes want to speak up – in a way that respects the rights and freedoms of others as detailed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the sport community should embrace their diverse opinions. Silencing athletes should never be tolerated, and to threaten them with removal from the Asian Games highlights the imbalance of power between sport leaders and athletes.
Silencing the athlete voice within sporting organisations has led to oppression, discrimination, and abuse of athletes – restricting their basic human rights has, and will, do the same.Global Athlete – Image: The image released by the IOC of Peng having a video-call chat with Bach, taken by Greg Martin of AFP for the IOC