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August 15, 2012

Keeping the Olympic Human Rights Torch Burning

This blog is part of the Olympics 2012 and Human Rights Series

The London Olympics produced new world records, new superstars and, this year, crossed a number of new human rights boundaries.  The Olympics provides the largest international sports platform and this year the International Olympic Committee, NGO partners and various governments flexed their muscles for human rights.

Gender Equality

“Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement.” –The Olympic Charter

Male and female athletes from every participating nation competing was a huge milestone for the London Games. After ardent international pressure, Saudi Arabia sent two women to compete in the judo and 800 meter track events, joining fellow Arab countries Qatar and Brunei who also sent female athletes to compete for the first time in history.  While many women are still unable to practice sports publicly in their home countries, this was an historic moment for the Olympics. Many female athletes are hopeful that the Olympic gender equality values will translate into national values and create more opportunities for women in sports going forward.

Disabled Rights

“The practice of sport is a human right.  Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” –The Olympic Charter

Equally controversial and celebrated, Oscar Pistorius’ participation in the 400 meter and 4x400 meter relay races marked the first time a double amputee on blades participated against able-bodied athletes at an Olympics.  Though Pistorius did not medal, it was the effusive support from fellow athletes that took the international media by storm.  Upon completing the 400 meter race, Gold medalist, Kirani James of Grenada embraced Pistorius and exchanged race bibs.

For the first time ever, the International Paralympics Committee is close to selling out the 2.5 million Paralympics tickets, surpassing China’s Paralympics ticket sales by a nearly half a million.  Though any direct correlation to Pistorius running and ticket sales is unknown, the visibility of the Paralympics is much greater and he has certainly opened the door for future disabled athletes to participate in the Olympics.

Social Media Accountability

“The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”-The Olympic Charter

Social media took on a new role this Olympics.  While fans enjoyed newfound access to their favorite athletes, a chosen few felt the full weight of their 140 character statements when they were banned from participating due to racist comments on their Twitter accounts that were not in line with the ideals of the Olympic Charter.  Greek triple jumper, Voula Papachristou, was expelled from the team after posting a racist joke about the African population in Greece.  Shortly thereafter, a Swiss soccer player, Michel Morganella posted a racially charged tweet about his victorious opponent that the Swiss team spokesman said, “discriminated, insulted and violated the dignity of the South Korean football team and the South Korean people.”  The swift and resolute action by multiple national teams set an important precedent that discrimination and hate speech will not be tolerated from Olympic athletes.

Human Rights as a Fourth Olympic Pillar?

“Both sports and human rights share many fundamental values and objectives.  It is surprising to note how little interaction there has been so far between the human rights movement, mechanisms and institutions and the world of sport.” – Navi Pillay, UN Human Rights Chief

As the London Olympics came to a close, concern over current and looming human rights issues at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia grow. Based on previous Olympic-host problems and the current human rights landscape in Russia, possible issues include: arbitrary housing seizures, unfair labor practices, media censorship, and unlawful detention of political dissidents and protestors. The IOC’s current ad hoc approach to finding solutions for these human rights abuses is not adequate.  In the past, local organizations have tried to combat these issues within the host country, but the IOC has not offered any framework on how human rights abuses should be handled in the past, nor does it discourage or prevent similar behavior occurring in Sochi.

The mission and role of the IOC as underlined in the Olympic Charter, proclaims that sport is a human right and that the abuse of Olympic ideals will be monitored by the IOC. Looking forward, human rights issues can be better addressed if the IOC puts a stronger emphasis on defining and enforcing human rights issues surrounding the Olympics through a human rights pillar. The presence of a fourth pillar at the Olympics can serve as an effective reminder for all participating corporate sponsors, nations, athletes, and onlookers to actively work towards achieving the Olympic values and supporting human rights internationally.