The Olympic Charter stops politics from getting in the way of sport


Craig Watkins, Opinion Editor

Sunday brought the close of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, the global phenomenon filled not just with the usual drama of athletic competition, but also with equally publicized controversy.

The modern Olympics have aimed from the start to be free of commercialism and politics, but people have always found ways to sneak both in. In these recent games with the inclusion of North Korean athletes, exclusion of Russian imagery, and dark air over the US Olympic Committee following the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal, it would be hard not to add commercialism and politics.

Of the many discussion points that came with the Pyeongchang Olympics, the International Olympic Committee’s ban on Russia was one of the biggest. The ban would punish Russia for their use of steroids on Olympic athletes in the last two Olympic Games by not allowing Russian athletes to display their country’s flag or have their medals counted towards Russia’s total.

Many Americans, unhappy with Russia’s interference in national events graver than sports, supported this ban. Considering they broke the Games’ rules, the support is obvious. But, this ban opened up discussion about banning other nations from competing.

The next most seemingly obvious country to ban is North Korea. The rogue nation is the closest the US has to a mortal enemy at this point, and their nuclear weapons tests pose a great threat to world peace.

Then, there was the unexpected and widely unsupported suggestion that The Huffington Post pulled out of their infinite ideas to cause Facebook fights: ban the US from the Olympics.

The 2018 Games are over, so any protests at this point are for the future. I will defend the IOC’s decision to keep Russia out of the Pyeongchang Games and to keep everyone else in in order to explain why some bans make sense and others do not.

Being the behemoth of an event (internally referred to as the Movement) that it is, the Games of the Olympiad have an extensive set of rules constantly under scrutiny and revision outlined in the Olympic Charter.

The Charter makes clear multiple times that the IOC and National Olympic Committees must oppose doping. When discussing the Russian doping scandal, the phrase “state-sponsored doping” continually comes up, though there is really no reason to emphasize it. According to the Charter, NOC’s may receive support from governments, but cannot partake in activities that go against the Charter.

That the state funded and encouraged steroid use makes no difference on whether or not it constitutes a ban. This rule can also protect athletes from punishment however, like in the case of Russia’s hack during the opening ceremony.

Computers in Pyeongchang linked to things from camera drones to ticket printers were hacked by the group Fancy Bear, likely in retaliation to the IOC’s ban on Russia. Fancy Bear has ties with Russian intelligence and was one of two groups who hacked the Democratic National Committee during the US’s 2016 presidential election. The attack was performed in such a way to lead investigators into believing it was North Korea’s doing, a tactic that clearly failed.

Despite its maliciousness, this attack would not constitute further punishment against Russia by the IOC. Because (as far as we know now) Russia’s Olympic Committee was not involved in the attack, they cannot be held responsible for their government’s action. The IOC’s concern only with NOC’s is a protective measure to ensure that politics do not get in the way of sport.

This rule has also allowed North Korea to send athletes to compete alongside South Korea’s women’s hockey team, as well as separately in the Pairs Figure Skating event.

The IOC has banned countries in the past for the crimes of their governments. Following WWII, Germany and Japan were not allowed to compete because of their recent military aggression. Allowing North Korean athletes to compete in the Olympics is a sign that the rules on bans are improving towards being completely free of politics.

While the North Korean government continually commits atrocities against its citizens, the people and athletes of North Korea are just that. The Olympic Games are supposed to be open to all, and as long as North Korea’s Olympic Committee is not assisting the state in their nuclear weapon tests (I’ve got a good feeling they aren’t), the IOC should not get in the way of allowing them to be part of the Movement.

That outspoken piece asking for the US to be banned really had me thinking. The initial reaction of course was that it would be adding insult to injury for the athletes abused right before the USOC’s eyes as well as disrespecting the hundreds of athletes, coaches, doctors, and organizations who contribute to Team USA that had no clue any of this was going on.

The writer for HuffPo didn’t even attempt to support his opinion by looking at the actual rules of the Olympics, but when I opened up the Charter, I noticed that he may have a point without realizing it.

The Charter states that no part of the Movement may discriminate athletes based on race or sex. This is why South Africa was banned for decades when their Olympic Committee would only accept white athletes. It is also the reason Afghanistan was banned from the Games in 2000 when women were not allowed to compete under Taliban rule.

It could be argued then that the USOC was compliant in allowing young women to be exploited, but then it could also be argued to be a separate issue. The trouble is that no rule in the Charter specifically addresses sexual abuse.

There is a rule that NOC’s must oppose violence in sport. Sexual abuse is undeniably a form of violence, but it is not clear whether or not this rule refers only to violence in competition. The most relevant rule is that NOC’s must ensure the medical care and health of its athletes. Again, this is an ambiguous rule, but it is the one that could be most easily interpreted as anti-sexual abuse.

Had the IOC considered a ban on the US, they very well could have gone through with it. The fact that it was USAG facilitating the abuse would not have changed that the USOC was associated with it. However, the USOC finally did the right thing by forcing the entire USAG Board of Directors to resign. Though it was a late response, it was an action taken to protect the health of future athletes, and one that the IOC should recognize as such.

The Olympic Games are better without political bias. The IOC has no shortage of questionable choices in the past, but they are necessary to ensure the Games are fair and accessible to all. There are still problems for them to solve, but new challenges are part of the road to a broad and bright future for the Olympic Movement.