蔡沛倫:The Olympic Games and Human Rights

Pei-Lun Tsai
Ph.D. student, School of Law,
University of Nottingham

Sports and human rights, two concepts that seem to have little relevance, are in fact closely linked against the backdrop of the Olympic Movement.  The respect for human rights is embedded in the Olympic Charter and past practice has seen occasional use of the Olympic Games as a vehicle for changes and reform in the field of human rights in host and participating countries.  A recent example saw the International Olympic Committee (IOC) engaged in talks with Saudi Arabia before the commencement of the 2012 London Olympics, urging the country to allow female athletes to compete at the Games.  The contribution below reflects on the relation between the Olympics and human rights with reference to a number of notable examples in this regard.

The International Olympic Committee, the Olympic Movement, and human rights

The IOC governs the organization, action and operation of the Olympic Movement, which encompasses any organization, athlete or person who agrees to be guided by the Olympic Charter.  The IOC, a non-governmental and non-profit organization, is fundamentally responsible for creating rules and regulations to guide the Olympic decision-making process.  It is also responsible for determining the qualifications of Olympic participants and selecting the host city of the Olympic Games. Among the Fundamental Principles of Olympism provided in the Olympic Charter, four principles relate to the protection and promotion of human rights.

  1. Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind.  Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.
  2. The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity. . . .
  1. The practice of sport is a human right.  Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play. . . .
  1. Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement. (emphasis added)

Among the tasks of the IOC is the selection of the host city.  The selection process involves a detailed study, which evaluates a wide variety of factors for candidate cities.  For instance, 17 themes were used to evaluate the host city for the 2012 Olympic Games, including political and economic climate and structure, legal aspects, customs and immigration formalities, security, technology, and media operations. Although the IOC Evaluation Commission makes no explicit reference to human rights issues in its reports, the committee does in fact take the human rights arguments into consideration.

History of using the Olympic Games as a tool for human rights reforms

Under the Fundamental Principles of Olympism mandated in the Olympic Charter, the IOC may undertake its specific political role in seeking to bring about change to states’ practice regarding human rights.  Although not every attempt produced a positive and effective result, the successful uses of the Olympic Games as a tool for improving human rights practices in the cases of South Africa and South Korea are worth noting.

  • South Africa

Beginning in 1948, South Africa adopted the policy of apartheid, which was condemned by the international community.  Originally, the IOC was reluctant to support the proposal of using the exclusion of South Africa from the Olympic Games as a weapon against apartheid because such exclusion seemed to be inconsistent with the Olympic ideal that political actions should stay separate from international sport.  Yet, the fourth and sixth Fundamental Principles of Olympism recognize the practice of sport as a human right and further prohibit discrimination grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or other considerations incompatible with the Olympic Movement.  These principles grounded the IOC’s later decision to boycott South Africa in order to combat its apartheid practice which limited the country’s Olympic team to whites.

The South African boycott was first implemented in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.  After a later investigation conducted during the preparation for the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, the IOC found that while the South African government had adopted a non-discrimination policy in terms of training, selecting and lodging of its athletes, the policy of segregated competition was still in force.  South African was once again excluded from the Games, and the exclusion lasted for 28 years.  Eventually, a mixed South African Olympic team participated in the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games.

One may find it hard to conclude that the IOC boycotts alone resulted in the change of policy.  However, Nelson Mandela himself said that the South African presence at the Games after the apartheid era had a “significance which goes beyond the boundaries of sport,” and the exclusion from the Olympic Games did effectively induce human rights reform in South Africa.

  • South Korea

The 1988 Seoul Olympic Games brought international visibility and increased pressure for a democratic Korea.  The decision of selecting South Korea came just 17 months after the massacre of 200 pro-democracy activists in Kwangju.  Critics of the Seoul Olympic bid believed that it was inappropriate to select a country, which under military rule committed human rights abuses, and whose reputation was tainted with corruption, assassinations and instability.  On the other hand, South Korea viewed hosting the Games as an opportunity for the world to recognize its successes and welcome it into the Olympic Movement.  In light of its commitment to host the Summer Olympics, Korea knew that it could not afford the international criticism that would result from massive human rights violations.  Just a year before the Games, South Korean strongman Chun Doo Hwan released 2335 political prisoners and stepped down from office thus paving the way for democracy.  Juan Antonio Samaranch, President of the IOC, has stated that holding the 1988 Olympics in South Korea helped spur the country’s transformation from military dictatorship to democracy.

The IOC also played an active role in the process.  On the one hand, the then President of the IOC made it known that the games might be moved elsewhere in case of massive disorders in South Korea.  On the other hand, while there was the threat of non-participation by a number of countries, the IOC engaged in direct conversations with important political power player at the time and promoted the idea that boycotting would only temporarily annoy or enrage the host country and hurt its people.  Such diplomatic approach resulted in the almost full participation of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games and in the establishment of respect for the IOC.

Has it always worked?

While the history of the Olympic Games have seen some success in bringing about positive changes regarding the respect of human rights, concrete improvements and reforms have not always been the case.  As China presented its bid for the Beijing Olympics, commitments were expressed towards the enhancement of both economic and social sectors, including the promotion of human rights.  Although one may not conclude that hosting the Olympic Games has not stimulated any advancement in China’s human rights policies, reports of the abuse of housing rights, freedom of expression and the rights of the detainees demonstrated that more should have been done for Beijing to deliver what it has promised.  Differences in the international and domestic politics provide plausible explanations why the successful experience in South Africa and South Korea was not duplicated in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  The difference in the IOC’s attitudes could be another reason, as human rights groups and non-governmental organizations have at times pointed to the IOC’s reluctance to speak out about the human rights abuse and violations.

While the use of the Olympic Games as a stimulus for human rights reforms does not always achieve same level of success, host cities and countries have nevertheless been put in the spotlight, and from the preparation to the running of the Games, all relevant policies and practice of the host countries have been closely monitored by the international media and human rights groups alike.  While overnight head to toe transformation may not be plausible, continuous and persistent efforts in advocating changes could still catalyze gradual reforms with respect to human rights.

External Links:

The Olympic Movement:

References and suggested readings:

  • Julie H. Liu, ‘Lighting the Torch of Human Rights: The Olympic Games as a Vehicle for Human Rights Reform’ (2007) 5 Northwestern U J Intl Human Rights 213.
  • James A.R. Nafziger, International Sports Law (2nd edn, Transnational Pub 2004).