December 2020
December 3, 2020

Does the IOC have the will?

9 min read

Just over a week ago, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president was gung-ho in warning the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI) of serious repercussions if the Italian Italian parliament goes ahead and enacts a law to dramatically alter the role of the CONI. Under the law a separate body “Sport e Salute” – or Sport and Health – was to be set-up to distribute funds to the country’s national governing bodies. 

Bach warned that that CONI could be suspended if it was passed by the Government, putting the 2026 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in jeopardy.

Late last week, the United States House of Representatives passed the Empowering Olympic, Paralympic and Amateur Athletes Act of 2020, which grants Congress the power to remove members of the USOPC Board of Directors.

The bill which will be in force once it is signed by the US president can also decertify national sports associations (NSA) in the country if they fail to adhere to the act.

It was to be sent to Donald Trump for his signature before October 13, but looks likely it may be delayed as Trump is now down with Covid-19.

While it mainly focuses on protecting athletes in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal at USA Gymnastics the bill goes smack against IOC’s stance which strictly prohibits Government interference in its National Olympic Committees.

If the US  president pens his signature on the bill, it is expected to be fully in force by October next year.

Kuwait and India were suspended in the past in what was perceived by the IOC as contravening the Olympic Charter. Yet it had not taken any such action against countries like Iran and North Korea which are likely to be contravening its Charter as well.

Does the IOC have the will to take action against the USA? The Americans are a top sporting nation and with it bring in huge amount of funding for the IOC through corporate sponsorship and broadcast rights.

American broadcasters NBC have an existing USD7.65 billion deal for Olympic broadcast rights all the way through to 2032 and a non-participation of an American team at the Olympics would put a big hole in the IOC finances.

Of this, 12.75 per cent, subject to adjustments, is to be paid directly to the USOPC.

The USOPC is the largest benefactor from the IOC among the 206 NOCs. In 2017 the USOPC received USD 90.8 million and USD89.3 million in 2018. All other NOC’s combined received just USD81.3 million in 2017 and USD80.3 million in 2018.

So it is no wonder that the USOPC had already decided not to contest the provisions in the bill.

IOC’s major sponsors including Bridgestone, Coca-Cola, Dow, Procter & Gamble and Intel are al US based organisations and may not be ecstatic with any suspension of US athletes.

Increasingly more countries have enacted or are enacting laws which curtail the powers and jurisdiction of their NOC’s and NSAs.

The Sports Development Act of Malaysia which has been in force since 1997, gives the Sports Minister sweeping powers over Malaysian NSAs as well as the Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM).

India is also in the midst of seriously enforcing its Sports Code that among others, affects the elections of office bearers. It has come up with strong push backs from the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and their NSA’s but so far even the Indian courts have taken the stance in siding with the government.

Greece and South Africa have also enacted similar laws. Newly elected Sri Lankan Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa has also indicated that his aim was to introduce a new Sports Act for Sri Lanka.

The IOC has failed to consistently apply the regulations which govern its own charter and it is highly unlikely that it would take even the smallest of action against the USA.

Any such action will seriously jeopardize the athletes and the IOC more than the government in power. The IOC while throwing their weight against smaller countries, do seem toothless or even complicit when it comes to the powerhouses.

Bach in an interview earlier this year said that international sport can only work if the international rules of sport are respected by everybody. He said that even if a Government was funding an NOC, they should still respect the autonomy of the organisation which receives the funds.

This is a delicate relationship that the IOC have more to lose and powerless when it comes to the crunch.

Back in 2017, a study commissioned by Play the Game is an initiative run by the Danish Institute for Sports Studies, found that one in seven NOCs directly controlled by their respective governments.

The study was to see how many NOC’s were managed at the top level by individuals representing governments, ruling monarchies, or individuals with senior positions in governmental sports institutions.

The survey, authored by political science student Mads Wickstrøm and communications officer MA Stine Alvad, found nearly 15% or 30 of the 205 recognised NOCs were directly controlled by people with positions in government.

“Knowing the strict rules of the IOC and its frequent flagging of autonomy as an almost sacred principle, it is surprising that the IOC can allow no less than 30 NOCs to be directly controlled by government officials,” commented Play the Game’s international director Jens Sejer Andersen in a comment to the survey.

The study also found that in Asia, more than one third of the NOCs had leaders who were employed by or formally connected to government institutions. The regional confederation with the second most was the Oceanian (ONOCA) (11.8%), followed by the European (EOC) (10%), African (ANOCA) (7.4%) and the American (PASO) (7.3%).

“It appears as if the IOC is defending autonomy randomly and only when convenient, for instance in cases where a country acts against narrow interests of Olympic power brokers, like we have seen in the case of Kuwait. If the IOC is not able to speak up against direct government management of sport in countries with full integration of sport and government such as China and Azerbaijan, how will it defend association freedom in the many countries that have more indirect ways of controlling sport,” asked Andersen when the survey was first released.

Nothing much has changed in since with the IOC still applying its regulations selectively and only against countries that the IOC could bully into submission.

Like Trump, who had openly claimed that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and still wouldn’t lose any voters, any American law that is seen as a threat to the IOC Charter is unlikely to be met with resistance from the IOC.

Chapter 2 Rule 16 (1.5) of the Olympic Charter requires that the running of the IOC itself is free from any sort of Government Interference.

“Members of the IOC will not accept from governments, organisations, or other parties, any mandate or instructions liable to interfere with the freedom of their action and vote.”

The Charter requires in Chapter 4, Rule 26.6 that the NOCs maintain their autonomy and resist governmental interference which are against the principles of the Olympic Charter.

“The NOCs must preserve their autonomy and resist all pressures of any kind, including but not limited to political, legal, religious or economic pressures which may prevent them from complying with the Olympic Charter”

The Charter under Chapter 4 Rule 9 also seeks to restrain governmental interference in the operations of a NOC by providing:-

“Apart from the measures and sanctions provided in the case of infringement of the Olympic Charter, the IOC Executive Board may take any appropriate decisions for the protection of the Olympic Movement in the country of an NOC, including suspension of or withdrawal of recognition from such NOC if the constitution, law or other regulations in force in the country concerned, or any act by any governmental or other body causes the activity of the NOC or the making or expression of its will to be hampered. The IOC Executive Board shall offer such NOC an opportunity to be heard before any such decision is taken.”

All these may look strong and ethical on paper, but the IOC which depends on the government assistance in hosting of the Summer and Winter Olympics/Paralympics, will still bend backwards when the going gets tough against the sports superpowers.

The reason for the IOC having such strict guidelines is to ensure the autonomy of its members, so that they remain free of any political interference, nepotism and discrimination.

But that alone is not going to be something that governments around the world would be moved by, as evident by the growing number of countries enacting laws with provisions that run against the IOC Charter.

Just take a look at the past and current financial scandals that many of the major sports organisations including the IOC itself has been embroiled in. It does not augur well for sports organisations.

The governing body for football – FIFA-, International Boxing Federation, World Athletics, Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB)  and the International Weightlifting are just a handful of the growing list of international sports federations which had to grapple with scandals of their own.

With the growth of political activism, the IOC is also being forced to reevaluate its staunchly apolitical stance, again selectively used.

They have not reacted firmly to the calls made by many that Iran be expelled or otherwise suspended en masse from the Olympic Movement, consequent to the Islamic State executing Iranian wrestling champion Navid Afkari recently.

Neither have they reacted to the growing calls for China to be stripped of hosting rights of the 2022 Winter Olympics, on account of egregious human rights abuses in Hong Kong as well at home with the persecution of the Uighurs in Xinjiang.

Just how the IOC is going to move forward with these issues remains a big question mark.

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