The IOC’s own history makes its new Olympic protest policy problematic

Darya Safai displays the sign that caused controversy during a volleyball match at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio. (Yahoo Sports)

Imagine, for a second, that a national anthem is playing. Imagine the chords, the brass, the strings. Imagine it’s early-August, 2020. And imagine, with a crowd singing, an Olympian is beaming. On a podium in sweltering Tokyo, he’s sweating profusely, but he doesn’t care. Imagine it’s the proudest moment of his life.

Then, as the anthem concludes, imagine him reaching into his shorts. Pulling out a banner. Holding it up, and revealing its message to the world: “LET IRANIAN WOMEN ENTER THEIR STADIUMS.”

Imagine all of this in light of the International Olympic Committee’s new protest policy, which outlaws, among other things, “any political messaging, including signs.” It outlaws them in many situations, including “during medal ceremonies.”

What, in this very realistic scenario, would the IOC do?

It’s a thorny question, made more thorny by the IOC’s obsession with quelling demonstrations, with preempting controversy, with “political neutrality.”

And it’s a question Darya Safai has a unique perspective on it.

Because in 2016, she essentially asked a similar one of Olympic officials. She was not an athlete, but rather a fan, confronted by similar rules banning political signage in stadiums. She challenged them by displaying a similar banner at a volleyball match

To her, what she was fighting for were basic human rights. Women in Iran have been oppressed for decades – told how to dress; told where they can and can’t work, what they can and can’t study, when they can and can’t travel. One aspect of the oppression, the one Safai drew attention to, was a ban on female attendance at sporting events. This, she felt, was a cause the world could get behind.

Olympic officials felt otherwise. To them, the banner was political. Security officers told her it had to go. She resisted. Security officers called for their higher-ups, and eventually men in military uniforms. She cried, yet still, she resisted.

Some of the officers, she says, “murmured in my ear: ‘You know, this is our job, but your cause is a good one.’ ” Ultimately, they allowed her to stay. But “they intimidated me,” Safai says. Had she not successfully resisted, the banner would have been confiscated – or she would have been escorted out of the arena.

All of which raises another version of the aforementioned question: What, exactly, is “political messaging”? What, exactly, did the IOC’s new policy forbid?

The IOC’s hypocrisy

It seems very likely that the imaginary athlete who held his banner atop a podium at the beginning of this column would be punished. That the banner, which essentially urges politicians to change policies, would be deemed political. That it is precisely the type of demonstration the IOC wants to avoid during competition.

To Safai, who spoke with Yahoo Sports on Friday, that’s problematic. And Olympic history supports her point.

For 24 years, from 1964 to 1988, the IOC barred South Africa from the Games. The reason? Apartheid. A worldwide sporting boycott was designed to pressure the nation’s government to end its systemic and violent descrimination against black people. When South Africa finally did, the IOC reopened Olympic doors.

In other words, the IOC, which strives for political neutrality, took a stand against politicians who were violating human rights. Every IOC member, upon being sworn in, promises to “fight against all forms of discrimination.” In this case, they upheld that promise.

Yet when other politicians violate citizens’ human rights, the IOC goes silent. 

“They would stand up against apartheid [in South Africa],” says Safai, who is now a member of the Belgian Federal Parliament. “I compared that to gender apartheid [in Iran]. What is the difference? Why is one of them ‘political,’ and one of them is human rights?”

Both are political, and both are also about human rights. The comparison exposes the IOC’s no-politics policy as hypocritical and the “political neutrality” ideal as impossible to achieve. Adjudicating protest requires subjective decisions by Olympic officials that are inherently influenced by both their individual world views and by external pressure – namely, by a need to protect the commercial well-being of the organization they run. The IOC’s true stance is not that politics and sport, in principle, shouldn’t mix. It’s that your politics and our sports shouldn’t mix. Unless your politics align with ours. 

What qualifies as ‘political’?

That subjectivity creates a massive gray area within the new policy. It is now somewhat clear which methods of political protest will be punished. But it is not clear what will qualify as “political.”

What if an Australian athlete, whose family is devastated by wildfires back home, wears wristbands honoring the victims?

Surely he would not be punished … but what if that same athlete criticizes politicians for failing to protect the forests, and criticizes world leaders for failing to curb climate change? Does that give his wristbands new meaning? Does that make them “political”?

What if an American sprinter wears pink lipstick to raise awareness for breast cancer? Surely not political … but what if, speaking on a subsequent day off, she then urges politicians to spend more on breast cancer research, and blames President Trump in the process? If she wears the pink lipstick again the following day during competition, does it become political?

What about the British swimmer who shuns a suspected-but-not-proven Russian doper on the podium? Is that a statement against cheating? Or a statement against Russia and its state-sponsored drug scheme?

And again ... what about the oppression of women in Iran?

With even the most righteous of causes, somebody will disagree. Almost anything can be interpreted as political. The IOC’s stance simply draws attention to the interpreting. It doesn’t keep politics out of sports. It makes the intersection of the two more controversial than it has to be.

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.