The Limits of Celebrity Activism

The International Olympic Committee has announced strict new rules governing athlete protests for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

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Alyssa Naeher & Megan Rapinoe. October 4, 2018. (photo: Jamie Smed)

The governing body of the International Olympic Games announced new guidelines for athlete protests this week. The revised rules, which will impact the July 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, have explicitly forbidden “gestures of a political nature, like hand gestures or kneeling”.

These new guidelines stem from an increasing, and increasingly distracting and divisive, number of on-field and off-field protests.

“We stand firmly against the growing politicization of sport because only in this way can we accomplish our mission to unite the world in peaceful competition.” — Thomas Bach, I.O.C. president.

Laying out its reasoning for the ban, the International Olympic Committee issued an impassioned defense of sport as a unifying force and a statement of unwavering support for Olympic athletes- regardless of their nationality or belief-system.

“The majority of athletes feel it is very important that we respect each other as athletes.” — Kristy Coventry, IOC Commission chair

Under the expanded and revised new rules, protests of a political nature are strictly verboten in the field of play, within the Olympic Village where athletes are housed and train during the games, and during ceremonies including opening, closing and medal ceremonies.

Olympic athletes are still welcome to express their views: Athletes are free to say whatever they’d like during press conferences, on digital platforms and in team meetings.

Not everyone greeted the news with applause.

“So much being done about the protests. So little being done about what we are protesting about. We will not be silenced.” — Megan Rapinoe, Instagram.

Though what Rapinoe's hopes the organizing body of the international Olympic Games to do about her issues with social injustice and Donald Trump is hard to say.

The International Olympic Committee, and the world leaders of the G20 and the UN who affirmed the new political neutrality rules, are correct however:

Sports fans don’t want to be pontificated to- everyone has their own personal soap-box, their own axe to grind. Letting every athlete who cares to lecture attendees on a topic dear to their hearts would reduce the Olympic games to a boring Hollywood awards show.

And no one watches those anymore.

Sports fans don’t want to hear about how much their favorite athletic hero loves God or hates Donald Trump from the Olympic podium while their teammates stand by, looking uncomfortable.

Megan Rapinoe is, of course, welcome to hate Donald Trump all she likes. And since America is a free country, she is welcome to speak ill of him to her heart’s content. She won’t be whisked away by secret forces to an underground gulag, or tortured to death for dissenting political views.

Her fellow Americans, and indeed most likely her fellow Olympic athletes, respect and would defend Rapinoe's right to say and believe anything she’d like about Trump, the U.S. or anything else.

Being free to hate the president is one of the things that makes America great and Rapinoe is perfectly justified in her opinions.

What Rapinoe is guilty of is the self-centered egotism of believing she is the only person on the field with the strength of her convictions.

Many people she is sharing the field with, from many different nations, have very strong political and social views on a variety of subjects from religious freedoms to social injustice. Some Chinese athletes would, no doubt, like to speak out about millions of Uighur Muslims interred in re-education camps, or in support of Hong Kong.

That they are not free to do so, because of restrictions placed on them by the Chinese government, isn’t the point: They are under no pressure to do so; it’s a game.

That is the only way the athletes from some nations would be allowed to participate.

Chinese authorities wouldn’t want their athletes subjected to a little display by Western powers on the glories of capitalism; athletes from Muslim nations don’t want to be forced to listen to someone’s heartfelt demonstration about how Jesus saves; and vice versa.

No watches the Olympics to hear about how much someone loves God, or Jesus Christ, or Allah or Buddha, or capitalism or communism, or social justice, or any other divisive topic. But by Rapinoe's same standards, any religiously inclined athlete, if sufficiently gifted enough to achieve Olympic status, has the moral obligation to use their elevated platform to save souls for Jesus.

Or whomever.

People watch the Olympics because they want to watch someone crush the previous record in the 100-meter dash; and deep in our hearts, we’d prefer that preternaturally gifted person hold our flag the highest when our national anthem is played.

All things being equal.

The Olympics is only a game; an international game, where a little light national pride should be the only thing on the line, even if love of sport is the only thing we all have in common.

Sport is a language all it’s own. Like music, sport it is its own culture, its own movement. If Megan Rapinoe doesn’t believe that sport- and sport alone- is a saving grace in this world of injustice; a reservoir of human goodness, hard-work and courage; as bastion of unity, camaraderie and decency- perhaps professional athlete is the wrong career choice for her.

Many people happen to think the IOC’s mission worthy and inspiring, but if it isn’t good enough for Megan Rapinoe, she is wasting her time and talent. While she is great at soccer, she might be truly fantastic at something she loves more than mere soccer- activism.

The pay isn’t great. The hours are terrible. But the people are pretty good. And the victories are sweeter, do doubt. Though hardly easier.

No one is trying to silence athletes like Megan Rapinoe. But if they think the International Olympic Committee has any power whatsoever to address the injustices these athletes hope to address, they are wrong.

Furthermore, the International Olympic Games organization is something Rapinoe should be proudly supporting and defending. It represents a world-wide community of athletes dedicated to sport and cooperation with fellow athletes from other nations.

Not only did the I.O.C. president promise that the 2020 Tokyo games will be carbon neutral, but also an “inspiration for sustainable development” and a “celebration of unity in diversity of all humankind”.

The organization, now in its 125th year, is closer than ever to completing the mission of the original founder: To make the world a better place through sport.

“We can only accomplish our mission to unite the world if the Olympic Games stand above and beyond any and all political differences. We can only achieve this global solidarity and true universality if the IOC and the Olympic Games are politically neutral.”

“The Olympic Games are always a global platform for the athletes and their sporting performances. They are not, and must never be, a platform to advance political or any other potentially divisive ends.”

“As history has shown, such politicization of sport leads to no result and in the end just deepens existing divisions.”

“In 2019, I was able to address this matter at the G20 Summit and at the UN General Assembly. On both occasions, our message was well received by the world leaders and the representatives of the UN Member States, who showed their support for our political neutrality by unanimously adopting the Olympic Truce Resolution for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.” — Thomas Bach, I.O.C. president.

Whether activist-athletes like Megan Rapinoe will adhere to the new guidelines during the upcoming games for the sake of their teammates, or risk fine and censure in a bid for more attention and an even bigger platform, remains to be seen.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)

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