The International Olympic Committee — either a willing accomplice or a weakened ally unable to stand up for itself — has allowed an exterior body to bar a sitting president from attending the next two Olympic Games.
This is the same IOC that screamed loudly and for decades that politics and sports ought not mix. And yet, this is the IOC that has injected politics into the Olympic Movement whenever it suited its needs.
On Thursday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) handed down a detailed set of sanctions against Russia amid consistent accusations that it brazenly operated a doping scheme. One of the penalties was an eye opener: Russian president Vladimir Putin wouldn’t be allowed to attend either the postponed 2020 Tokyo Games (rescheduled for the summer of 2021) or the 2022 Beijing Games. There’s a stipulation in the CAS ruling allowing for the host government to invite Putin or other Russian officials; however, if there’s no invitation, then top Russian government officials will not be present in Tokyo or Beijing.
The IOC could have — no, should have — immediately and forcefully decried the banning of a sitting president. Instead, it remained mute, unwilling or unable to ask for the ban to be removed.
Mind you, the IOC knows how to play politics when it wants to engage in it.
Here’s just a short list of examples:
-1936: IOC leaders refuse to listen to calls from the United States and elsewhere to remove the Olympics from Germany because of the increasing evidence that Adolf Hitler was anti-Semitic.
-1972: IOC president Avery Brundage, himself known to hold anti-Semitic views, boldly (if not stupidly) announces that the Olympics in Munich wouldn’t stop to honor the Israeli athletes and coaches murdered by Arab terrorists.
1980: Moscow hosts the Summer Games, marking the first time a Communist land had such a privilege. For the IOC, putting the Games in the Soviet Union was consistent with its ideal of ensuring the Olympic Movement cut across all borders.
2008: Beijing hosts the Summer Games, as IOC officials refuse to listen to calls about China’s human rights record.
2020: Early this year and before coronavirus necessitated bumping the Games to 2021, the IOC announced that athletes in Tokyo would be penalized for any action it deemed political.
If that’s the measuring stick, then the IOC needs to show a spine and penalize itself; acquiescing to a rule that denies any sitting president the opportunity to witness the Olympics is a political statement. And a bad one.
Neither Brundage (however flawed he was) nor his successors would ever have endorsed closing the doors of an Olympic Games to a world leader. But here we are in 2020, and current IOC head (of the sinking ship) Thomas Bach appears quite content to allow outsiders to determine which politicians are worthy of entering the Olympic arenas.
I accept that organizations change over time, and their principles might as a result. But banning political leaders — the symbolic and real heads of a nation — from attending the Olympics has all sorts of danger associated with it. And that danger is made even worse by the IOC allowing an outside agency to establish the precedent.