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Ed Dixon | Should we really trust the IOC’s human rights push after years of inaction?

With the IOC pledging to use its new strategic framework on human rights to help decide future Olympic Games hosts, SportsPro’s senior staff writer offers his take on the initiative and argues that the organisation must take a firmer stand on contentious issues.

26 September 2022 Ed Dixon

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I am sometimes guilty of not reading the small print.

Be it laziness or naivety – how bad can it be? – the terms and conditions of my various bills or contracts over the years perhaps haven’t been given the scrutiny they warranted.

But the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) strategic framework on human rights, unveiled earlier this month, prompted a vigorous examination that far outstripped my past efforts to decipher any phone, WiFi or energy payment.

On the surface, it seemed a positive development. The framework promises to inform the selection of future hosts of the Olympic Games, as well as steer processes and decisions related to the IOC administration, the delivery of its events, athlete representation, and more inclusive sport.

As a first step, the IOC has outlined 16 objectives it plans to implement by 2024, including amending the Olympic Charter and establishing a human rights advisory committee.

“The overarching mission of the Olympic Movement is to contribute through sport to a better world,” said IOC president Thomas Bach.

“Human rights are in fact firmly anchored in the Olympic Charter. We will be strengthening this even further in the future.

“Our mission, to put sport at the service of humankind, therefore goes hand-in-hand with human rights.”

The move, while long overdue, is a welcome one. But, predictably, there are caveats. Chiefly, the organisation will only take action ‘within its remit’ and ‘within the scope of its responsibility’.

In other words, the IOC will do what it can…to a point.

The overlord of the Olympic Games has been under pressure to overhaul its approach when it comes to questions of moral principles and standards. The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, which were held against a backdrop of controversy, was the latest event that highlighted the IOC’s failure to properly address matters of basic human decency.

The Games were overshadowed by numerous allegations against the Chinese regime, including its persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province. A recent United Nations (UN) report, released at the end of August, detailed ‘serious human rights violations’ that may constitute ‘crimes against humanity’.

The Chinese government, which attempted to stop the publication of the report, said in an official response that it was ‘based on the disinformation and lies fabricated by anti-China forces’ and that it ‘wantonly smears and slanders’ the country and interfered in its internal affairs. The response was accompanied by a 121-page counter-report.

One could argue that the IOC’s new initiative is a case of better late than never. But for it to truly succeed, the organisation needs to be prepared to put its head above the parapet. That will be difficult, given that the IOC has routinely defaulted to political neutrality when pressed to take a stand on controversial matters.

“We are not a super-world government,” Bach said a year out from Beijing 2022.

“We have to fulfil our role and to live up to our responsibilities within our area of responsibilities, and the governments have to live up to their responsibilities in their remits.”

We need to remember, though, that the IOC is not responsible for any old mass gathering. This is the Olympic Games, after all, widely regarded as the definitive sporting event and one that claims to promote peace. The IOC must be ready to do more and be better.

Of course, past complacency has been afforded by the seemingly infallible Olympic brand. But all things have their limits.

Bach and company should be less concerned about undermining the IOC’s standing in the wider political climate. The organisation has the chance to harness the amiable and inclusive nature of sport – something that unites rather than divides.

Yes, perhaps this all sounds a bit idealistic. But the IOC insists its latest measures represent a ‘long-term commitment to lead by example’. As we’ve seen with Beijing 2022, that has often been absent in the organisation’s recent history, save for a few moments. At Pyeongchang 2018, for example, Bach said he hoped the Games would encourage talks between North and South Korea.

Either way, the solidity of the framework is going to be tested as more countries with questionable human rights records look to stage future Olympics. In August, Saudi Arabia’s sports minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal described hosting the Games as an “ultimate goal” for the kingdom. His comments came a day after the UN human rights office (OHCHR) expressed outrage over the 34-year prison sentence given to doctoral student Salma al-Shehab in connection with tweets on political and human rights issues in Saudi Arabia.

The IOC should view its framework as a chance to set an example and change perception. To do that, accountability and transparency have to be watchwords in the coming years. Ultimately, if the goal for the IOC is to fundamentally reshape its working practices and put people’s rights at the heart of its operations, action will be required.

Do nothing and opportunists will only keep using sport to their advantage.

Ed Dixon covers the international sports business for SportsPro and is a contributor to the SportsPro Podcast. Follow him on Twitter here.

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