IOC response to Raven Saunders exposes her hypocrisy around ‘political neutrality’ | Afua hirsch
With the Tokyo Olympics now in the rearview mirror, it helps to reflect on how one of the Games’ most interesting athletes was treated.
When the adorable shot putter Raven Saunders, who is a black, gay woman, won a silver medal, she took the opportunity to fold her arms in an X – a gesture of solidarity at “the intersection of the place where all oppressed people meet “. We can expect the Olympics to approach this in two ways.
In the first scenario, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – whose main mission, it seems to constantly remind us, is to “build a peaceful and better world” – realizes that this is a winning moment. Is there a message more about the brand with building a better world than solidarity with all oppressed people?
IOC President Thomas Bach, a former Olympic fencing medalist, seems to truly believe in the mission. He described his personal experience of the “magic” of the Games to foster peace and progress – “the unifying power of sport”.
There is no avoiding the fact that the Olympics are full of slogans and gestures. More and more medalists are biting their medals – perhaps once reflecting an authentication of their metal content, but these days just demand from photographers hoping to get a lucrative photo. If you look at those UK podium moments, they are probably accompanied by an official BBC epithet that says ‘Hate will not win’.
The second scenario of how the Olympics approach such a person is, I’m afraid, more cynical. In this version, the CIO is a giant company trying to sell a product.
Like other grandiose sports conglomerates, it negotiates lucrative broadcast deals, negotiates enticing advertising deals, and boasts a brand that makes you cry with envy.
If so, you might conclude that he’s doing pretty well. The IOC’s much lauded “business transformation” has seen its sponsorship revenues grow from $ 500 million in 2000 to nearly $ 3 billion today. McDonald’s sponsorship ended in 2017 after 41 years, but Coca-Cola sponsorship continues (are we really still supposed 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 her product. She was after all one of the most impressive people participating in the Games.
Fans love her colorful hair (half green, half purple), brightly colored sunglasses, and charisma – walking around the arena, talking to each other, performing cute moves when the urge takes her, and naming and owning. her inner Hulk who, she explains, just “takes over.” If increasing its global audience share is the goal of the IOC, people like Saunders are only releasing their authentic and compelling performances for free. As a black and gay woman, standing up for her humanity goes hand in hand with the land.
And yet. Tokyo proves once again that the IOC is not capable of achieving its stated goals – the progress of humanity – nor its real goals, to understand the world market. Instead of supporting, protecting and celebrating athletes like Saunders, the IOC has actually stepped up its efforts to penalize them.
Saunders, like the esteemed roster of principled athletes before her, is under investigation for breaking the rules, although the IOC said it had “totally suspended for the time being” the review after learned of his mother’s death. Instead of calling into question the famous Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter – subtitled “Advertising, demonstrations, propaganda” – the IOC clarified it this year, leaving no doubt that “gestures of a political nature, such as a hand gesture or kneeling ”, are prohibited.
Put aside for a moment the irony that this clarification is itself a gesture – a clear intervention. vs the Black Lives Matter movement which has seen athletes of all kinds kneel down.
The IOC, despite decades of doing so, has yet to learn the truth about false neutrality. He did not learn it in 1936, when to remain “neutral” vis-à-vis the Nazi regime meant legitimizing Hitler.
He didn’t find out in 1968, when he penalized John Carlos and Tommie Smith for their punches in the sky over Mexico City. You are probably visualizing this protest, as it has become an iconic statement of anti-racism and black liberation for the ages. Yet the IOC has never apologized to Carlos and Smith, or to the world for intervening against their cause.
Even more difficult to digest, the IOC today has the audacity to promote these “legends” on its Olympic channel, for “one of the most emblematic moments in the history of the modern Olympic Games”. It seems that activism has its uses in strengthening the Olympic brand, with the comfort of hindsight.
Bach didn’t learn this in 1976, when he attended his first Olympics in Montreal as a promising young fencer. According to his account, Bach found a dream experience in Montreal, abruptly interrupted only by the impact of African nations withdrawing their athletes. Bach fails to mention that these nations withdrew during a protest to boycott apartheid South Africa – which is hardly a trivial move.
And if Bach really cares about the opportunities for Africans, he can note that the sports boycotts against South Africa have been one of the most effective in hastening the end of apartheid, which has deprived millions. most basic rights, not to mention access to competitive sport.
Appearing “neutral” on oppressive issues has hardly become a better idea over time. Outside of the intellectual dishonesty of describing the assertion of existing power systems as “neutral,” there is no evidence that it makes anything better or more peaceful. Beijing 2008 has not improved China’s human rights record in Xinjiang or Hong Kong. It is not the words of Bach’s selective memory that ring true, but those of psychologist Jonathan Haidt: “Sport is to war what pornography is to sex.
That hasn’t stopped athletes from reminding us of the best of humanity. As a thank you, Saunders remains under investigation, despite the “suspension”. Defending your humanity on the podium was a violation of the rules.
Should an athlete be in mourning before her right to expression is protected? It’s hard to know where to start to deselect sent messages.
Does the IOC take an interest in building a better world from a distance? If so, he should applaud the athletes who pursue his mission in championing the causes of humanity and progress.
Otherwise that’s okay, just another corporate entity that uses great ideals to market its products. Sadly, this is something I suspect we are all intimately familiar with. And besides, we love to watch sports. In which case, the IOC can spare us the grandiose message, which, seen clearly, takes empty gestures to a whole new level.