Why abolishing Olympics anti-protest rule could do more harm than good

The Games are meant to be a neutral space where we set aside the issues that divide us, writes former Canadian Olympian Jasmine Mian.

Rule 50 reinforces that the Games are meant to be a neutral space where we set aside issues that divide us

Regarding Rule 50, the IOC Athletes' Commission says, 'It is a fundamental principle that sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference ... when an individual makes their grievances, however legitimate, more important than the feelings of their competitors and the competition itself, the unity and harmony as well as the celebration of sport and human accomplishment are diminished.' (Wassilios Aswestopoulos/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

This column is an opinion by Jasmine Mian, a 2016 Canadian Olympian and a graduate student at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Anti-racism demonstrations and the Black Lives Matter movement have revived concerns about Rule 50 of the International Olympic Committee's Charter. While those calling to abolish the anti-protest rule have their hearts in the right place, doing away with it may create more harm than good.

The Olympics is meant to be a neutral space where we set aside the issues that divide us.

If you're an athlete who wants to protest or demonstrate against something, there are a handful of places you can't do it under Rule 50 — the Olympic podium, during Olympic ceremonies, in the village or on the field of play. Athletes can still state their views or protest in post-game press conferences and on social media, and outside the venues of the Games.

The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport and the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee's Athletes Advisory Council have asked for an amendment to the rule, citing its incongruity with the International Declaration of Human Rights and a litany of other international and domestic laws.

On the surface, it's hard to understand why you wouldn't want athletes to have more rights. However, good policy recognizes that ideals are not reality, and just because something is progressive doesn't make it productive.

Firstly, Rule 50 does not prevent protest because athletes who have true conviction in their views will do it on the field or the podium anyway, no matter what disciplinary action follows — and they should be commended for that bravery. When John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists to protest racial injustice at the 1968 Olympic Games, it was heroic because it wasn't convenient or welcomed.

Americans Tommie Smith, centre, and John Carlos raise their gloved fists in a human rights protest at the 1968 Olympics. (The Associated Press)

However, there is no shortage of other places to protest, and Rule 50 along with its repercussions for athletes keeps the bar high.

And while Rule 50 is out of step with the laws of many western democracies, it's also those in the West who stand to benefit most from abolishing it.

If you want to talk about privilege, we have to recognize that a Canadian can stand on the Olympic podium and give the middle finger to the entire world and not be murdered when they get home. This same privilege does not exist for athletes like Feyisa Lilesa, a marathoner from Ethiopia who could not return home after he protested the Ethiopian government as he crossed the finish line in Rio 2016. 

Athletes living in countries with the worst human rights records face a real threat of violence or even death for demonstrating. Abolishing Rule 50 gives privilege to the already privileged, but really changes little for everyone else.

If the neutral space of the Olympics is broken, it also could exacerbate existing geopolitical tensions or create new ones, which is the antithesis of Olympic movement.

An Iranian wrestler covertly protested Israel's nation status by feigning injury at a world championship in order to not wrestle an Israeli athlete, for example. If we routinely allow more overt forms of protest at the Olympics in the name of freedom of expression, it won't be long until competitors are refusing to stand on the podium with other athletes.

We must do everything we can to prevent the Olympics from further contributing to real-world fighting and animosity.

Another reason to keep the bar high around acts of protests on the podium and the field of play is that the fate and spirit of the Olympic Games depends on it. Greater freedom for some at the Games could lead to censorship for others.

There is a danger that oppressive regimes will stop airing the Olympics for their citizens, or even sending athletes, if the risk of protest is too high. The kids who are supposed to be inspired by the Olympic movement and its values of inclusion and fair competition might not even get to experience it.

Perhaps there is some amendment to Rule 50 that can overcome all these challenges. Until then, let's shelve the idea of abolishing Rule 50, because the Olympics doesn't need another ideal it can't live up to.

If you've got real solutions for human rights issues, get off the podium and discuss them in the press conference — or better yet, get out and vote, run for office, volunteer or donate.


Jasmine Mian is a 2016 Canadian Olympian, and a graduate student at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.