Canada's past, present IOC members say calls for social change must be confronted

Corruption in leadership, rampant doping issues, athletes who feel disenfranchised, a worldwide pandemic, plus a call for freedom of expression in light of anti-Black racism has forced the IOC to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

Core values of Olympic Movement at risk in run-up to threatened Tokyo Games

Four-time Olympic hockey champion Hayley Wickenheiser leads Team Canada during opening ceremonies at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Wickenheiser, a current member of the IOC Athlete's Commission, believes allowing competitors a platform to speak their mind is crucial to upholding Olympic values. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

As social movements go, the Olympics have proven themselves to have plenty of staying power.

Much more than a sporting event, the modern Olympics were conceived of by, among others, a French educator, Pierre de Coubertin.

The International Olympic Committee was formed to govern them back in 1894 two years before they actually took to the field of play in Athens, Greece in 1896.

The Olympic Charter, which has evolved over time, is much more than rule book for sport. It is, in fact, a roadmap envisioning a way of life which espouses universality, inclusion, and a wide-ranging set of commonly held and seemingly unassailable values.

The Charter holds dear things like persistence, hard work, fair play, tolerance, and togetherness. It is unapologetic in professing the notion that sport is ultimately a good thing.

International Olympic Day came into being in 1948. The same year the London Olympics were held after two editions of the Games, both winter and summer, had been lost due to the Second Word War.

The purpose of International Olympic Day is to celebrate the birth of the Olympic Movement, to encourage mass participation in sport regardless of race, religion, gender, orientation, circumstance, or ability, and also to be mindful of living the "Olympic Values."

Upholding Olympic Values

Recent events in the world have made all of this very difficult.

Corruption in leadership, rampant doping issues, athletes who feel disenfranchised, a worldwide pandemic which has stopped the current congregating power of the Tokyo Olympics in its tracks, plus a call for freedom of expression in light of anti-Black racism has forced the IOC to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

One of the most powerful social movements on the face of the earth is now forced to confront dramatic change or risk becoming out of step with the times or, even worse, irrelevant.

WATCH | Damian Warner discusses IOC's stance on protest gestures:

Damian Warner: IOC 'doesn't want to hear' what we have to say

3 years ago
Duration 0:51
Canadian decathlete Damian Warner had strong words for the IOC, calling their stance on athletes protesting 'unfortunate' and said they are on the 'wrong side of history.'

Canada's past and present members of the IOC unanimously agree that the Olympic Movement must now face these issues head on, and when making changes, they have to get it right or else lose their constituency.

"It's about defining what living the Olympic values means in the current context," said Canadian Olympic Committee president, 4-time Olympian, and IOC member, Tricia Smith.

"It's not a simple question. But I believe the Olympic values do provide a framework for addressing all of these issues in a way that is hopeful and inclusive and unique. Unique, because as we know, there is nothing like sport to bring the world together, even a world that can seem so fractured. We need that now more than ever."

Athletes are at the centre of the change which is afoot and all of the Canadian IOC members we contacted, competed at the Olympics in one sport or another.

"Athletes are familiar with setting ambitious goals, working towards achieving them, in the process, learning from both success and failure," said Richard Pound, a swimmer at the 1960 Olympics who was first elected to the IOC in 1978 and is currently its longest serving member.

Former Canadian Olympic swimmer Richard Pound, seen above in a file photo from 2016, is a prominent advocate for ethics in sport and currently the longest serving member of the International Olympic Committee. (Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

"On occasions, such as we now face, during which the usual paradigm of our society and interpersonal relationships come under unprecedented pressures, it is important to maintain a healthy perspective and to recognize the need to realign our conduct and goals. The Olympic Movement has an extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate that these qualities have an impact for not only sport but also across the entire gamut of society."

Charmaine Crooks is a five-time Olympian and has served on the IOC Athlete's Commission, was a full voting member of the IOC from 2000-2004 and is a founding member of the IOC Ethics Commission.

As a Black, track and field, athlete, she understands the importance of the IOC making its stance on racism defensible.

"Sport is a powerful platform in the fight against systemic racism," Crooks stressed.

"Now more than ever, the voices of athletes here in Canada and around the world are coming together as a team to be a catalyst for accelerating sustainable change and promoting the values that unite us well beyond sport."

Charmaine Crooks, a five-time Olympian in track and field, carries the Pan Am flame during the opening ceremony of the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto. (Julio Cortez/The Associated Press)

The athletes are increasingly finding their voices and are eager to use them to prompt an Olympic evolution.

"The biggest challenge is to stay humble and connected to the little guy and the athletes versus 'playing God' which many believe the IOC does," said 4-time Olympic hockey champion and current IOC Athlete's Commission member Hayley Wickenheiser.

"Humility, transparency, and allowing the athletes to truly have a voice are all keys to success. The athletes need to understand they have more power than they think. The collective voice is strong. I believe the right thing, the truth, will always win out in the end."

"I think the biggest challenge the Olympic Movement faces right now is potentially also its biggest opportunity," said cross country skiing gold medallist Beckie Scott, who served on the IOC from 2006-2014 as well as chairing the World Anti-Doping Agency's Athlete's Commission.

"Sport has historically consolidated a majority of its power at the top level, leaving athletes out of the equation and powerless to influence the decisions that affect them the most. It's a business model that has worked very well for a very long time for some. But the foundation of the model needs to shift in order to grow and stay current. Athletes are at the heart of the Olympic Movement, its most important and precious stakeholder. What a fantastic challenge to acknowledge, embrace and – as a result – progress the movement."

Canadian former cross-country skier Beckie Scott, World Anti-Doping Agency athlete committee chairperson, speaks at a news conference in Calgary in 2018. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP)

It is a critical time for the Olympics.

There are serious issues to deal with and it's not overstating the case to say the future of something, which we have all become accustomed to, is on the line.

Still, on this International Olympic Day, those from within who advocate change universally acknowledge that the Games are worth fighting for.

"Everything I have in my life, I owe to the Olympic Games," Wickenheiser concluded.

"There is nothing that unites the world like the Olympic Games. They are the most incredible display of humanity I've ever been a part of."

Now the task for the Olympic Movement is to prove that it not only has staying power but that it is also open to change for the better.


Scott Russell has worked for the CBC for more than 30 years and covered 14 editions of the Olympics. He is a winner of the Gemini Award, Canadian Screen Award and CBC President's Award. Scott is the host of Olympic Games Prime Time and the co-Host with Andi Petrillo of Road to the Olympic Games. He is also the author of three books: The Rink, Ice-Time and Open House.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now