Olympians Can't Leave Politics At Home


The outrage over whether boxer Damien Hooper should have worn an Aboriginal flag t-shirt in his opening bout has reopened what is perhaps the most tired debate in sporting history: if the Olympic Games are a place for "politics".

Whether Australians consider the wearing of an Aboriginal flag to be a "political" statement is one thing — Indigenous commentators have come out strongly in support in any case — but how the t-shirt might impact Hooper’s medal chances are another thing altogether. The Olympic Charter (pdf) is explicit on the matter: "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

While the International Olympic Committee has decided to leave the disciplining to the Australian side, if Hooper repeats his "offence" he could be disqualified or worse. As the second-ranked light-heavyweight boxer in the world, Hooper will almost certainly shy away from wearing the shirt again, and has already apologised.

Consider another "uniform" related issue at the current games: the admission of the Saudi Arabian judoka Wojdan Shaherkani, who yesterday was cleared to fight wearing her hijab, after much consternation by the International Judo Federation.

Shaherkani has been the focus of much media attention as one of two female Saudi athletes competing in the Olympics this year. During the opening ceremony, Olympic officials spoke in glowing terms of the inclusion of female athletes from all countries. She is remarkable because of her gender and nationality; lacking a black belt, Shaherkani will likely be flattened in her first bout. This is not to slight her inclusion; even seeing her get pummelled will be an inspiring sight for Saudi girls, forbidden from playing sport, who manage to see a broadcast of the event.

She was ostensibly permitted to compete in the name of the universal Olympic ideal of sportsmanship. What is more likely is that the IOC caved to pressure from the Saudis, who threatened to withdraw their contingent if she was disqualified from competition. In a Games already groaning under the weight of scandal, not least of all the G4S security guard boondoggle and outrage over empty corporate seats, the IOC could hardly afford more headaches.

Further examples abound in the bizarre world of judo. The Lebanese squad recently refused to train in the same gym as their Israeli counterparts, part of a long history of Iranian and other athletes refusing to compete against Israelis. Rather than insist on "mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play", as espoused in the Olympic charter’s "Fundamental Principles of Olympism", the facilitators merely put up a screen.

So let’s abandon the idea that the Games aren’t a place for politics. The real political interventions are on the part of the IOC and its associated national and code bodies. Genuine outbursts of political goodwill like Damien Hooper’s t-shirt are suppressed, while the powers-that-be will abandon the spirit of fair play that is the cornerstone of their organisation in order to avoid scandal.

So much for the IOC; in many cases they won’t have the luxury of taking the moral high ground. But what about the athletes? Hooper’s decision to wear his t-shirt and the Lebanese judo team’s refusal were both choices. Perhaps they should have adhered to the Charter’s principles and left their politics at home?

In many cases the opposite is the case: to adhere to the Olympic Charter athletes have no choice but to act politically. In the unbelievably exciting basketball final of the 1972 Olympics, America was defeated by the Soviet Union by one point following a series of illegal time-outs and failures to reset the clock. On appeal, the five-member panel voted against the US, with Cold War nations Hungary, Cuba and Poland tipping the scale in the USSR’s favour. In protest, the Americans refused to collect their medals, and to this day have rebuffed calls for them to accept alternative honours.

The same could be said of the anti-apartheid sporting bans conducted by the IOC against South Africa and Rhodesia. But in one of the greatest ironies in sporting history, the only two track athletes for Rhodesia in the 1968 Olympics, Bernard Dzoma and Mathias Kanda, were disqualified from competing under the policy. They refused to compete if they could not run for their country, partly because Rhodesia was liberalising its policies towards coloured athletes; in the end they were not permitted to run as independent athletes. That was the same year as Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ famous black power salute — they were heckled at the time and expelled from the games.

It is the responsibility of athletes to act politically in order to meet the highest aspirations of the Olympic spirit, and the self-appointed role of the IOC and its subsidiaries to attempt to scandal-manage real outpourings of goodwill. The London games are the most heavily PR managed and policed in history: the critics have been removed from Twitter; opening ceremony protesters were arrested en masse and forbidden from approaching Olympic venues as part of their bail conditions; Liesel Jones, Nick D’Arcy and the like have been swept up in confected media storms. Perhaps the most necessary political act this time will be to compete as a real person, not a product.

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