The International Olympic Committee released on Friday, July 2, a set of guidelines with “guidance on the implementation of Rule 50.2 of the Olympic Charter. Rule 50 of the Charter encompasses how athletes are permitted to express themselves at the Olympic Games, including the rules regarding protesting both on and off the Field of Play.
The updated guidelines state:
“During the Olympic Games, athletes also have the opportunity to express their views, including:
- In the mixed zones, including when speaking to the media
- In the International Broadcasting Centre (IBC) or the Main Media Centre (MMC), including when speaking to the media
- During press conferences in the venue or in the MMC
- During interviews
- At team meetings
- In traditional media or digital media
- Through social media channels
- On the field of play prior to the start of the competition (i.e. after leaving the “call room” (or similar area) or during the introduction of the individual athlete or team) provided that the expression (for example, gesture) is:
- consistent with the Fundamental Principles of Olympism;
- not targeted, directly or indirectly, against people, countries, organizations and/or their dignity;
- not disruptive (by way of example only, the following expressions are considered disruptive: expressions during another athlete’s or team’s national anthem and/or introduction, as this may interfere with such other athlete’s or team’s concentration on and/or preparation for the competition; physical interference with the introduction of another athlete or team or the protocol itself (for example by unfurling a flag, a banner etc.); causing (or assuming the risk of causing) physical harm to persons or property, etc.); and
- not prohibited or otherwise limited by the rules of the relevant National Olympic Committee (NOC) and/or the competition regulations of the relevant International Federation (IF).”
“When expressing their views, athletes are expected to respect the applicable laws, the Olympic values and their fellow athletes. It should be recognised that any behaviour and/or expression that constitutes or signals discrimination, hatred, hostility or the potential for violence on any basis whatsoever is contrary to the Fundamental Principles of Olympism.”
Rule 50.2 as compared to the original boundaries of Rule 50, does offer athletes more opportunities to express their views than were previously available. While athletes were already permitted to do so during press conferences, traditional or digital media, or in the mixed zone, the biggest update is that athletes will now be allowed to express their views on the field of play prior to competitions, so long as said expression stays consistent with the stipulation mentioned above.
This provision on the updated rule is in stark contrast to the previous iteration of Rule 50 which said that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” While this is the first example of the expression of athletes’ views being permitted on the field of play, protest is still prohibited during competition, on and around the podium, and during the opening/closing ceremonies.
International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission Kirsty Coventry discussed the announcement, offering that “the new guidelines are a result of our extensive consultation with the global athletes’ community”, “While the guidelines offer new opportunities for athletes to express themselves prior to the competition, they preserve the competitions on the Field of Play, the ceremonies, the victory ceremonies and the Olympic Village. This was the wish of a big majority of athletes in our global consultation.”
The global consultation referenced by Coventry occurred earlier this year when the IOC surveyed over 3,500 athletes from 185 different National Olympic Committees. The athletes were asked about the “appropriateness of demonstrating or expressing views in various ways” and “the importance of new ways of demonstrating or expressing their views.”
More than 2/3 of the athletes in question responded by saying that protests should occur at the Olympic Games during competition, on the medal stand, or during the opening and closing ceremonies.
Athletes’ rights and ability to protest during international competition came into focus 2 years ago at the 2019 World Swimming Championships. There, Australia’s Mack Horton refused to stand on the podium with Sun Yang after the 2 won silver and gold, respectively in the men’s 400 freestyle. Horton’s protest was due to Yang’s then-on-going doping investigation. As a result of his protest, Horton and Swimming Australia were sent ‘warning letters’
Following Horton’s protest at 2019 Worlds, Duncan Scott engaged in a similar protest after winning a bronze medal to Yang in the men’s 200 freestyle. While he did stand next to Yang on the podium, Scott refused to shake hands or take a photo with Yang afterwards.
— Veronica Eggleton (@veggleton) July 23, 2019
Following Scott’s protest, Yang approached him and said something to the effect of “you are a loser, I am a winner.” That interaction was also recorded during the event broadcast:
Sun Yang gets in bronze medalist Duncan Scott's face after the 200m freestyle medal ceremony (Sun won gold after Lithuanian Danas Rapsys was DQed for a false start). Scott and Sun did not appear to shake hands, and Sun shouted in Scott's direction earlier in the ceremony. pic.twitter.com/0ilhiSorqt
— Nick Zaccardi (@nzaccardi) July 23, 2019
Following Scott’s protest and the subsequent interaction, both Scott and Yang were issued ‘warning letters’ by FINA. The notices read that “both competitors had an inadequate behaviour on this occasion, which is not acceptable in accordance with the FINA Constitution Rule C 12.1.3.”
Considering that the 2019 World Championships was not an Olympic Games, there was no official ruling regarding their compliance with the IOC’s Rule 50. Considering, however, that in Rule 50.2 the podium has been intentionally left off the list of acceptable places for athletes to express their views, Scott and Horton’s actions would not be considered acceptable at the Olympic Games.