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Despite criticism, the IOC appears unwilling to change controversial Rule 50

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The U.S. and other Western democracies are holding a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, citing genocide and crimes against humanity in northwest China. But U.S. athletes are not boycotting. In fact, members of Team USA have been told to keep quiet about China's alleged human rights violations. One reason stems from a controversial rule known as Rule 50. It prohibits any, quote, "kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda" during the Olympics.

YANNICK KLUCH: The basic structure of the rule as it exists right now in its current form was introduced in around 1975 into the Olympic Charter.

MARTINEZ: Yannick Kluch is an expert in diversity and inclusion in global sports. He says Rule 50 was adapted shortly after the most famous protest in Olympics history, when U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos used the global stage for their cause.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: During the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos raised a single gloved fist as a symbol of protest at the treatment of Blacks in the U.S.A. They were ordered out of the Olympic Village and was suspended by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

MARTINEZ: The IOC has never confirmed that it created the rule in response to those 1968 protests. But athletes are increasingly holding global sports organizations accountable for racial injustice and other inequities. And the IOC still seems unwilling to get rid of this rule.

KLUCH: Rule 50 has become one of the most prominent battlegrounds for racial justice and human rights in modern sport. And that is because, you know, if we look at Rule 50, we can see that it's clearly targeting minoritized athletes. One of the key cornerstones of the IOC argument is that IOC Rule 50 must stay intact to preserve the neutrality of the games. You know, scholars like me and others that came before me, specifically those from minoritized communities, have argued long ago that sport is never neutral because, you know, a lot of the social ills we see in society, we see in sport. And if we just assume that sport is neutral and we don't do anything about it, then we are just reinforcing those injustices, those inequities.

MARTINEZ: You know, and despite the controversy surrounding Rule 50, an IOC Athletes' Commission involving more than 3,500 athletes - a majority of participating athletes did not think it is appropriate for athletes to express individual views during the opening ceremony or on the podium or even on the field of play. Yannick, what do you make of that?

KLUCH: I'm glad you bring that up because, you know, earlier I mentioned that one of the cornerstones of the argument of the IOC has been that sports should be neutral, which is a fallacy. It's never neutral. The other core piece of the argument is that survey that you referenced. The way the survey was set up was flawed. There was leading questions. There were some major flaws in the methodology. First of all, a majority of the athletes came from one culture context. The cultural context that was most represented was China. And China has been very outspoken to keep Rule 50 intact. You are not tracking any racial demographics. And the rule is clearly targeting racially minoritized populations. So right now, looking at the data, we don't know if a lot of the folks who responded are racially minoritized. And again, that's who the rule is targeting.

But these last Olympic Games in Tokyo, actually, they eased up a little bit on that. German hockey player Nike Lorenz, who wanted to wear a rainbow armband during a hockey match - and that is a violation of Rule 50 because it's viewed as a symbol of protest, advocating for the rights and humanity of LGBTQ people around the world. But the IOC approved that protest. So they were actually violating their own rule, which kind of hints at some of the larger issues at play here that one of the major critiques globally surrounding Rule 50 is that athletes don't know what the consequences are.

MARTINEZ: Do you think, Yannick, at all that we as a society are putting too much responsibility on athletes to raise concerns about things like human rights?

KLUCH: I would say, yes and no, you know? In an ideal world, we wouldn't need athletes to speak up on those things because they wouldn't exist in the first place. I do think that, you know, nobody forces athletes to speak out, and even folks who work with athletes. You know, nobody forces athletes to speak up. I think, right now, we are in a time where athletes are increasingly wanting to use their platform to call attention to global injustices, racial injustices, social injustices. But, you know, I think one of the misperceptions is that if we change Rule 50 to allow for those kinds of protests and demonstrations that every single athlete will be expected to speak up. But that's actually not what we want. We just want to make sure that folks who decide to speak up, to use the Olympic and Paralympic platform, which arguably is one of the biggest platforms we have to call attention to racial and social injustice globally - that those who choose to speak up don't get punished for it.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. And ahead of the Beijing Winter Games, athletes were warned about speaking out about human rights issues over concerns of their safety. Yannick, is the Olympic movement complicit in helping China to cover up its human rights violation? If we go through the whole Olympic Games and we hear and see nothing, nothing at all from athletes, is the Olympic movement complicit here?

KLUCH: That's the million-dollar question. And if you ask people like me who, you know, study and research and advocate for athletes to be heard, I would say, absolutely. I mean, the IOC has made some leeway in centering, you know, human rights. And they say that's, you know - they say that in their argument, that they want to promote human rights, that their movement is about humanity and, you know, bringing people together. But the reality is, is that their policies, their practices don't support that. I mean, just leading up to the Beijing Games, there's a lot of, you know, very well-respected human rights organizations - like the Human Rights Campaign, Human Rights Watch, the Center for Sport and Human Rights, the Australian Human Rights Institute - all speaking up, saying, you know, you are not living up to your potential as the IOC.

You should be more proactive in centering human rights. You have to have mechanisms in place that make sure that countries who, you know, have some of the starkest violations of human rights don't get to host your games, because what you are allowing them to do is to sport-wash, you know, their horrific human rights records and just use the games to present themselves as open-minded, forward-thinking nations - when in reality, there is severe human rights violations, which is what's happening in China right now. So I think as long as the IOC and the IPC don't have those mechanisms in place, they are absolutely complicit.

MARTINEZ: That is Yannick Kluch, assistant professor and director of Inclusive Excellence in the Center for Sport Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University. Yannick, thank you very much.

KLUCH: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEREO EXPRESS' "REBIRTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.