With the Tokyo Olympics now in the rear-view mirror, it’s useful to reflect on how one of the most interesting athletes at the Games has been treated.
When the lovable shot putter Raven Saunders, who is a black, gay woman, won a silver medal, she used the occasion to cross her arms in an X – a gesture of solidarity at “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet”. There are two ways we might expect the Olympics to approach this.
In the first scenario, 그만큼 International Olympic Committee (IOC) – whose main mission, it seems to constantly remind us, is “building a peaceful and better world” – realises this is a winning moment. Is there any message more on brand with building a better world than standing in solidarity with all oppressed people?
The IOC president, 토마스 바흐, a former Olympic fencing medallist, seems to truly believe in the mission. He has described his personal experience of the “magic” of the Games for fostering peace and progress – “the unifying power of sport”.
There’s no avoiding the fact that the Olympics is full of slogans and gestures. Medallists increasingly bite down on their medals – perhaps once reflecting an authentication of their metal content, but these days just a request from photographers hoping to get a lucrative shot. If you watch those podium moments in the UK, they are likely to be accompanied by an official BBC epithet that declares “Hate Won’t Win”.
The second scenario of how the Olympics approaches such a person is, I’m afraid, a more cynical one. In this version, the IOC is a corporate giant trying to sell a product.
Like other grandiose sporting conglomerates, it brokers lucrative broadcasting deals, negotiates eye-watering advertising contracts and enjoys a brand that makes others weep with envy.
If this were the case, you might conclude it’s doing pretty well. The IOC’s much lauded “commercial transformation” has seen its sponsorship revenues jump from $500m in 2000 to approaching $3bn 오늘. McDonald’s sponsorship ended in 2017 후 41 연령, but Coca-Cola sponsorship continues (are we really still meant to believe elite athletes drink Coke?), and the IOC has added digital companies such as Alibaba and Airbnb to its list of “partners”.
In this context, you would expect the IOC to look at an athlete like Saunders and see, in cold, capitalist terms, her potential to market its product. She was after all one of the most impressive people competing in the Games.
Fans love her colour-block hair (half green, half purple), brilliantly coloured sunglasses and charisma – stalking around the arena, talking to herself, performing cute moves when the mood takes her, and naming and owning her inner Hulk who, 그녀는 설명한다, just “takes over”. If increasing its share of global audience is the IOC’s goal, people like Saunders are just throwing their authentic and compelling real-self performances in for free. As a gay, black woman, defending her humanity goes with the territory.
그리고 아직. Tokyo proves yet again that the IOC is neither capable of achieving its stated aims – the progress of humanity – nor its real ones, understanding the global marketplace. Instead of supporting, protecting and celebrating athletes like Saunders, the IOC has actually doubled down on penalising them.
Saunders, like the esteemed list of principled athletes before her, is being investigated for breaking the rules, 그러나 the IOC announced it had “fully suspended for the time being” the review on hearing of her mother’s death. Instead of questioning the Olympic charter’s notorious Rule 50 – subtitled “Advertising, demonstrations, propaganda” – the IOC clarified it this year, leaving no doubt that “gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling”, are off limits.
Put to one side for a moment the irony that this clarification is in itself a gesture – a clear intervention 에 맞서 the Black Lives Matter movement that has seen athletes of all kinds taking a knee.
The IOC, despite having decades to do so, is yet to learn the truth about faux neutrality. It didn’t learn it in 1936, when remaining “neutral” on the Nazi regime meant legitimising Hitler.
It didn’t learn it in 1968, when it penalised John Carlos and Tommie Smith for their hands punched into the Mexico City sky. You are likely visualising that protest, because it became an iconic statement of anti-racism and black liberation for the ages. Yet the IOC has never apologised to Carlos and Smith, nor to the world for intervening against their cause.
Even harder to stomach is the fact that, 오늘, the IOC has the audacity to promote these “legends” on its Olympic channel, for “one of the most iconic moments in the history of modern Olympic Games”. It seems activism has its uses for strengthening the Olympic brand, with the comfort of hindsight.
Bach didn’t learn it in 1976, when he attended his first Olympics, in Montreal, as a promising young fencer. From his telling, Bach found Montreal a dreamy experience, rudely interrupted only by the impact of African nations withdrawing their athletes. Bach fails to mention is that these nations withdrew in a protest aimed at boycotting apartheid South Africa – hardly a trivial move.
And if Bach truly cares for the opportunities available to Africans, he may note that sports boycotts against South Africa were one of the most effective in accelerating the demise of apartheid, which deprived millions of black people of the most basic of rights, let alone access to competitive sport.
Appearing “neutral” on matters of oppression has hardly become a better idea over time. Apart from the intellectual dishonesty of describing the affirmation of existing power systems as “neutral”, there is no evidence whatsoever that it makes anything better or more peaceful. Beijing 2008 did not improve China’s human rights record, in Xinjiang or Hong Kong. It’s not the words of Bach’s selective memory that ring true, but those of psychologist Jonathan Haidt: “Sports is to war as pornography is to sex.”
That hasn’t stopped athletes reminding us of the best of humanity. As thanks for which, Saunders remains under investigation, despite the “suspension”. Defending her humanity on the podium was a violation of the rules.
Does an athlete need to be bereaved before her right to expression is protected? It’s hard to know where to even begin unpicking the messages that sends.
Is the IOC remotely interested in building a better world? 그렇다면, it should applaud athletes who further its mission by championing causes of humanity and progress.
If not, it’s no big deal, just another corporate entity that uses big ideals to market its products. 안타깝게도, this is something with which I suspect we are all intimately familiar. And besides, we do love watching sport. In which case, the IOC can spare us the grandiose messaging, 어느, seen clearly, takes empty gestures to a whole new level.