How the IOC’s upholding of Rule 50 increases the impact of sports protests


Two of the biggest stories of the past year appear to be coming to a head at the Tokyo Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee’s decision to uphold Rule 50, which bans protests on the field of play, was announced last week before a series of cancellations and withdrawals due to COVID-19 shook up the Canadian sports landscape.

A positive test will hold tennis phenom Bianca Andreescu out of the upcoming Madrid Open, while Olympic champion bobsledder Alex Kopacz revealed he was struggling to breathe while dealing with the virus. Meanwhile, Athletics Canada announced it was dropping out of a major track meet, the World Relays, over COVID-19 concerns.

It all raises questions of what the Olympics might look like — if they happen at all.

In the latest episode of CBC Sports video series Bring It In, host Morgan Campbell and guests Meghan McPeak and Dave Zirin bounce around their takes on the upcoming Olympics in light of these recent events.

After the police shootings of George Floyd and Jacob Blake last summer, professional sports leagues supported their athletes in speaking out against the systemic racism that was on display.

The IOC’s upholding of Rule 50 means potential protests in Tokyo may carry even more impact.

“Protest is about risk. Protest is about rebellion. And if we want protest to be effective, then we should say that Olympic athletes don’t need and should not seek the IOC’s approval to protest,” Zirin said.

WATCH | Bring It In examines the future of Olympic protests:

Morgan Campbell, Meghan McPeak and Dave Zirin share their takes on the IOC’s decision to continue prohibiting athlete protests during the Olympic Games. 12:20

The IOC cited a statistic showing that 70 per cent of athletes are against politics on the podium. Meanwhile, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, one of the most powerful national federations, said it will support athlete protests.

When Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists on the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Games, it was powerful due to its spontaneity, says Campbell.

“What we saw a lot of this summer is when the leagues embrace this type of messaging it becomes less of a protest and more of a demonstration,” Campbell said.

“John Carlos and Tommie Smith said, ‘We’re gonna get up on this podium, we’re gonna raise the Black fist no matter what happens afterwards, no matter if the IOC says it’s against the rules, no matter if they send us home from Mexico City.”

COVID-19 question marks

According to McPeak, the Rule 50 decision could be a way of controlling the narrative while the pandemic continues raging across the globe.

“Change doesn’t happen unless we have uncomfortable conversations. If we control when the uncomfortable conversations happen, then we’re not actually trying to have change. I think this is what the IOC is trying to do.”

Like the virus itself, questions surrounding the Olympics’ viability spread quickly every time an international event faces a COVID-19 threat. When Andreescu and Kopacz revealed positive tests, and Canada was one of four countries bowing out of World Relays, the question arose once more: will the Games go on?

“There’s no doubt the Olympics are going to happen one way or another. The IOC is determined for the Olympics to happen,” McPeak said. “The only way I think it doesn’t is if you then see federations begin to completely pull their athletes, not just from one sport here or there, but totally.”

WATCH | Bring It In debates whether the Tokyo Olympics will happen:

Morgan Campbell, Meghan McPeak and Dave Zirin discuss whether or not the number of Covid-19 cases in athletes should tighten safety measures in Tokyo. 8:36

To date, North Korea is the only country to pull out of the Tokyo Games citing the pandemic.

“[The Olympics are] already a bit of a warped proposition, so if they think they’re too big to fail, I think they’re operating from a position of arrogance and not scientific reality,” Zirin added.

Throughout the pandemic, sports leagues have cancelled and postponed seasons and games. In the U.S., where college sports are nearly as big as their professional counterparts, some fall seasons were delayed before going ahead despite little difference in the COVID-19 situations.

Now the Olympics face a similar decision. The panel agreed it would require more than just a few athletes dropping out — it might take multiple major countries doing so.

“I want to see the best against the best. And what we’re flirting with is an Olympics of ‘B’ and ‘C’ teams,” Campbell said.

Read more at CBC.ca