Olympic bosses have often strayed from their self-declared bubble of autonomy to quaff with dictators and press the flesh with the Putins and Xis of the world if it meant status and cash flowing Faster, Higher, Stronger - Together.
If Olympic history is anything to go by, gold certainly blinds one to systematic doping and other forms of abuse endured down many decades by young athletes, women in particular.
The dark side of the Olympic Movement has long held hands with a culture of self-preservation among the ruling class. Taking responsibility has never been their creed, alien to them the concept of reconciliation, a prerequisite to the guardians of the Games ever getting close to being able to declare the realm they govern safe.
So, best we sit up and pay attention when bosses at the International Olympic Committee announce they intend to take responsibility for their latest passion: safeguarding.
Yes, that’s right! The organisation that has chucked female athletes to the curb along with their rights to fair play, justice, reconciliation, health and welfare, physical and mental for at least half a century, has seen the light!
Of course, we must take this into account: the deeds of the IOC have fallen a very long way shy of its words and pledges on such matters ever since it came to life in 1896 with Pierre de Coubertin at the helm telling the half of the world with a different biology:
Women have but one task, that of the role of crowning the winner with garlands. In public competitions, women’s participation must be absolutely prohibited. It is indecent...
By 1919, he was still trotting out sexist tropes, swiping aside requests for women's events in track and field and other sports as "impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and ... improper".
The world has changed but some things at the heart of IOC culture have not moved on apace. They simply shape-shifted to suit the age, the era, the direction of wind, whatever the theme or the challenges of the hour.
Today, safeguarding is one of the big themes of the moment on the back of a great deal of misogyny, and abuse of various kinds, from the humiliating to the sexual crime. Men are not immune to abuse, of course, but if you could fit all the male victims in a mini, you'd have to hire a few cruise liners to have a hope of counting the women who've been forced to navigate the stormy seas of discrimination in a man's world, sport included.
Today, safeguarding is a big issue that stretches to criminal acts that fall under the jurisdiction of the many varying laws, legal systems and cultures of sovereign nation states.
Until today, safeguarding has seemed like a matter Olympicland in Lausanne considered to be beyond its borders (see USA Gym crisis below).
No more, it seems. As the opening lines of Chess, the musical, put it, "the borders keep shifting around". In that sense, let's call the vote at the 141st IOC Session in Mumbai, India, in support of worldwide IOC “safeguarding hubs” this past week, a Schengen-style move in which barriers are removed and universal principles of athlete welfare will be applied.
It may be obvious to all of you but sovereign nations do not form the membership of the IOC (that would be to suggest the Sun revolves around the Earth). Rather, those much bigger entities called countries have sports organisations that are members of the Movement, given permission to fly flags in competitions where athletes represent their nations, unless a dictator here or there has been a naughty boy and Tchaikovsky is brought in to drown out the reality of Russian representation.
Within that Olympic system of separation of church and state, in which the IOC's claim to autonomy is tolerated, there is an understanding that the Games and its organisers have jurisdiction when it comes to abuse of any form on its patch while the Olympic Torch blazes.
There's also the Olympic Truce that extends any period of jurisdiction to a couple of weeks either side of openings and closings, which is the only reason cited for Vladimir Putin having been stripped of the Olympic Order: not because Russia's dictator and his Duma invaded and waged war on the sovereign nation of Ukraine but because they did so within an indecent Olympic margin of the curtain closing on the Beijing 2022 Winter Games.
The latter is significant to safeguarding and many other areas of life that are relevant to the Olympic Movement but not a part of its jurisdiction. How? Well, simply because the Lords of the Rings are all too keen to point out where borders and boundaries run between the world and the Vatican of sport and all its non-profit activities useful to paying staff very high wages indeed.
As stated, they also love to make a Schengen Move when it suits. Now, it seems to suit when it comes to safeguarding.
Just what it will mean in practice and how its success or otherwise will be measured and by whom are open questions.
The skinny of the IOC safeguarding plan
A summary of what the IOC is committed to:
- two pilot regional safeguarding hubs in Southern Africa and the Pacific Islands
- the IOC [Executive Board] backs initial work for a European safeguarding hub.
- “The new regional hubs will act as central coordination points, and will provide athletes with independent guidance, and help them access psychosocial support, legal aid and any other assistance that they may need. This will be delivered through existing services, available locally, in the athletes’ own language and with an understanding of their culture and local context.”
- “The pilot hubs in Southern Africa and the Pacific Islands will build on existing initiatives in the regions, and will have in-depth knowledge and understanding of local safeguarding measures, and the legal landscape and services available, so that they can guide anyone harmed in sport – from grassroots through to elite level – towards trusted services, particularly those designed to support their well-being."
- “Where there are gaps in the available services, the hubs will seek to mobilise resources and partnerships to address them. The hubs’ primary focus will be on response, in order to ensure that any person who has been harmed in sport has a direct point of contact who can offer immediate assistance and access to local support.”
The Sports Examiner (TSX) suggested that it was “rather amazing for a worldwide organisation like the IOC to undertake an effort that has to be locally based within communities, certainly the work of National Olympic Committees and their national sport federations. But the announcement also clarified that, once again, only the IOC has the money, interest and is willing to take some level of responsibility”.
A couple of points:
- The IOC has so far allocated $10 million for its safeguarding Hubs: that’s less than half of the annual budget guaranteed by the U.S. Government for the reformed U.S. Center for SafeSport under a powerful Act that may well be related to the IOC’s heightened interest in safeguarding, as we’ll come to a few hop, skip and jump down.
- Some level of responsibility? Will that stretch to fiduciary, financial and legal, including compensatory measures passed as part of any judgements by independent authorities? I only ask because if not then what will “responsibility” look like given that nation states and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) are obliged in law to take responsibility on all of those three counts.
Meanwhile, the IOC Session also approved changes to the Olympic Charter to incorporate new human rights references. The relevant tweaks to the Fundamental Principles of Olympism include:
- Modification to no. 1: “Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for internationally recognised human rights and universal fundamental ethical principles within the remit of the Olympic Movement.”
- Modification to no. 4: “Every individual must have access to the practice of sport, without discrimination of any kind in respect of internationally recognised human rights within the remit of the Olympic Movement.”
Two more points:
- “Within the remit of the Olympic Movement” places the border where it must be, which is shy of the place where responsibility for safeguarding truly rests, with nation states and national laws - which differ the world over. Spreading awareness and education is one thing; taking responsibility for ‘safeguarding’ is something entirely different.
- “Internationally recognised human rights.” No description of what that refers to is given and in the absence of specifics is meaningless and open to whatever interpretation may be placed on such a generality case by case in different places among different peoples.
As research with British Olympian Sharron Davies for our book Unfair Play recently taught me, decades of IOC flip-flopping on sex tests, from appropriate and welcome to inappropriate and highly questionable and then to scrapping sex-testing altogether and leaning on one human right to argue in one direction on matters of inclusion, could be described as a long form of safeguarding nightmare for female athletes.
Those inclusion guidelines were just that: guidelines. Within half an Olympic cycle they were rendered useless as big sports such as track and field, swimming and cycling adopted their own rules to effectively safeguard women’s sport for female athletes and thus observe rules that insist on sex-based fair play and equality and forbid sex-based discrimination.
Tip for the IOC for future think-tank sessions:
Fair, on that basis, to ask who is steering the safeguarding plan at an IOC of heightened awareness of Human Rights?
Has the IOC taken on a mission impossible?
Chaired by EB member and Deputy Chair of the IOC’s Gender Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Commission HRH Prince Feisal Al Hussein, the working group’s remit is to consider the best approach to establishing independent safeguarding systems and structures at national level, which will ensure that resources are directed to where they are most needed to support athletes and build safeguarding capacity in sports organisations.
HRH Prince Feisal Al Hussein hails from Jordan and may well be a very fine and fair man. There may also be those in the world who will look up the Human Rights Watch World Report 2021 ...
... and read:
“Jordan's personal status code remains discriminatory, despite a 2010 amendment that widened women's access to divorce and child custody. Women need the permission of a male guardian to marry, and marriages between Muslim women and non-Muslim men are not recognised. Women cannot travel abroad with their children, as men can, without the permission of their child’s father or male guardian or a judge. While women can travel outside the country without needing permission, authorities sometimes comply with requests from male guardians to bar their unmarried adult daughters, wives, and children from leaving the country. Authorities also arrest women reported as “absent” for fleeing their home by their male guardians under the Crime Prevention Law.”
“In July 2021, Jordanians circulated a video on social media outlets in which the screams of an unseen woman can be heard. The woman, identified as “Ahlam", was was apparently killed by a relative. Article 98 of Jordan’s penal code, amended in 2017, states that the “fit of fury” defence does not allow mitigated sentences for perpetrators of crimes “against women,” but judges continued to impose mitigated sentences under article 99 if family members of victims did not support prosecutions of their male family members.”
One can, of course, go around the world and draw upon long lists of social and cultural realities that are legal in one country and definitely illegal in another. And that’s the point.
If it is not for the IOC to be involved in such national-level politics, and there are strong arguments in favour of that, then how does the IOC hope to apply a universal safeguarding regime that applies in equal measure to all athletes and members of the Olympic Movement – as it must to be at all meaningful - by “working with local organisations”?
If an athlete in one country can take her male coach to court after he assaults her and a guilty verdict result in jail while an athlete in another country suffering the same fate faces a scrum of male family members related to her assailant only to be told ‘we’ve told him to go home in shame and not do it again’, then show me the benefit of working with local organisations beyond my previous suggestion of where the IOC border on safeguarding rests: awareness and education, which does not extend to “responsibility” because there is none in law, because there is no direct way a victim can point to the IOC and have a hope of saying ‘you did not protect me enough and I intend to sue you’ as that athlete might in a sovereign nation where it is possible to do so, as we’ve seen in the United States.
Yes, that assault scenario is a caricature in this context but extend the thought to many scenarios and you quickly see the mission impossible in a safeguarding plan that would see the IOC take “responsibility” - and then, perhaps only “within the Olympic remit”.
It all sounds like big words, big budget for more bureaucracy, far too little detail (before a vote) sent out to be digested by members of members of IOC members and the expert safeguarding professionals already working with them to judge whether the IOC’s $10m is worth the paper its plan is written on.
The detail matters, all the more so when we’re dealing with safeguarding and matters of trust.
Victims of abuse have often felt safer reporting to and then having their cases handled by people and institutions that are distinctly at arms length from the realm in which they were abused.
However well meant the IOC’s intentions are, it has its own culture and practices to turn to for evidence of why many would not trust it to look after safeguarding issues, some of which involve matters of personal safety.
The Olympic Order honorees list alone includes many people who do not have a role in political life that is conducive to trust, to put it mildly. Take Han Zheng, Olympic Order recipient as the Mayor of Shanghai: as the leader of the Central Leading Group, Han said in March 2021, that electoral reforms in Hong Kong, designed to reduce the power of district councillors and to increase the power of the election committee, were being implemented to "prevent subversion."
These are highly contested matters that stretch to global politics and espionage. And the IOC, it seems. Han is now vice-President of China. He is one of many examples of those honoured within Olympic sport at IOC and International Federation (IF) levels who have shaped the way the wider world sees the IOC:
Intolerant of minor discretions of athletes, highly tolerate of extremely worrying and even criminal behaviour.
Swimming, for example, who has included seven people on its ruling bureaus in the past 20 years who have been called to account in criminal investigations, two of them jailed but still named in the rolls of the great and worthy.
Before every single one of those people has been removed from every honours list in Olympic sports, how does the IOC hope to be trusted in matters of safeguarding, let alone be seen as an organisation “prepared to take responsibility”?
IOC leaders have long maintained that the politics and affairs and the different laws in different countries and regions of the world are not a part of its jurisdiction. That realm that is "not our responsibility" includes a multitude of different safeguarding laws, women's rights and cultural proclivities that are supposed to disappear in the melting pot of universality.
Key to the IOC's self-declared and widely tolerated state of autonomy is the separation of the Olympic Movement with its call to the Youth of the World and the much bigger (Sun to Earth-style magnitude) and more complex sphere of global politics and laws, stretching from national legal systems defined by borders and internal boundaries, such as those that exist in the European Union and even within sovereign nations, such as the subtleties of home-nation rule in the United Kingdom and the legislative rights of states in federal systems such as that in Germany.
That separation of realms is a myth, of course.
The two worlds collide on a constant and inevitable basis, Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter simply there to keep athletes from towing their causes and concerns to the podium with them for all the world to see. The rule clearly does not apply to the blazers and bureaucrats, regardless of how often they suggest it does.
Back to borders & what a USA abuse scandal taught us
Borders are set out in the Olympic Charter, which notes under Composition of NOCs:
The area of jurisdiction of an NOC must coincide with the limits of the country in which it is established and has its headquarters.
Under Members, the Charter also states:
Members of the IOC will not accept from governments, organisations, or other parties, any mandate or instructions liable to interfere with the freedom of their action and vote.
The Charter mentions the word law (beyond the copious use of the term bye-law in its own rules and a note on accountability to Swiss law in its financial statements) five times. Two of those references are significant to the treatment of nationals laws in the Olympic Movement:
- “If governments are deemed to have interfered with the work of the NOC and its right to elect representatives, membership of/affiliation to the IOC can be withdrawn.”
- “Members of the IOC will not accept from governments, organisations, or other parties, any mandate or instructions liable to interfere with the freedom of their action and vote."
The IOC has used the latter to take action against nations that have sought to replace Olympic delegates, including IOC members. However, it has taken no action against the United States, home of the funding giant NBC, the broadcaster, since October 2020, when the House of Representatives matched the Senate in a vote to pass the Empowering Olympic, Paralympic, and Amateur Athlete Act (S2330).
The Act, in which athlete welfare and safeguarding are the heart and lungs of intention, "requires $20 million in funding for the Center for SafeSport each year to cover its operating costs". And:
The bill also prevents potential conflicts of interest by prohibiting individuals who are employed by the USOPC or an NGB from serving the Center for SafeSport and limiting the ability of former employers and Board members from serving.
Before S2330 bill was passed, the Sports Examiner, in its Big Picture column, reported that the Act “potentially places the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee on a path to suspension by the International Olympic Committee."
In August 2020, when the Senate voted in favour of S2330, U.S. Senators Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), the Olympic athlete safety reform legislation bill’s sponsors, issued a statement saying:
Today’s Senate passage of our Olympic reform legislation marks a critical step towards providing effective safeguards and protections to Olympic, Paralympic and amateur athletes pursuing the sports they love. We could not have passed this bill in the Senate today without the input and guidance of the survivors – athletes who traveled to Washington countless times, shared their stories and demanded change. While powerful institutions failed these survivors in the past, we aren’t going to.
The legislation was introduced in July 2019 in response to the Larry Nassar scandal. The central figure of the 2020 film Athlete A, the USA Gym team doctor was:
- sentenced to 60 years in federal prison on December 7, 2017, after pleading guilty to possession of child pornography and tampering with evidence on July 11, 2017.
- sentenced to an additional 40 to 175 years in Michigan State Prison on January 24, 2018, after pleading guilty in Ingham County to seven counts of sexual assault
- sentenced to an additional 40 to 125 years in Michigan State Prison on February 5, 2018, after pleading guilty to an additional three counts of sexual assault in Eaton County
At the time the U.S. legislation was passed, Sen. Blumenthal told reporters:
Larry Nassar became the face of a pattern of systemic failure and abuse and he reflected a culture of putting medals and money above the lives of athletes, prioritising those tangible signs of victory above the human lives that were impacted so adversely.
Systematic failures were reflected in Larry Nassar’s success in terrorizing these young athletes and it affected other trainers, other coaches who similarly betrayed trust, it affected other sports, figure skating and swimming as well as gymnastics. None were immune to this sexual, physical or emotional abuse.
The Bill’s passage followed an 18-month Senate investigation into abuse in Olympic sports sanctioned by the USOPC, a Colorado Springs-based tax exempt, non-profit organisation.
"Sen. Moran and I heard again and again and again that the USOPC and NGBs have failed their athletes at every turn,” Blumenthal said. “Men and women in these organizations knew what was happening. They did nothing. They already had a legal duty under the law to report what was going on, clearly laying out in the law what should be obvious, that you must report allegations of sexual misconduct involving minors was not enough for them. They betrayed not only their trust with these athletes but their legal and moral responsibility."
And here is why the IOC will have taken a very keen interest indeed:
The Act grants democratically elected politicians the power to determine who represents the country and its athletes at the helm of the Olympic Movement in the United States, the power to decide if those in charge are fit for purpose and following the laws and standards set for all citizens of the country. Those powers include the right to remove the entire board if the U.S. Government deems that necessary.
Let’s repeat the Charter:
Members of the IOC will not accept from governments, organisations, or other parties, any mandate or instructions liable to interfere with the freedom of their action and vote.
There is hardly a scenario one can think of in which the IOC would suspend the USA for the Act that already constitutes a “mandate or instructions liable to interfere with the freedom of their action and vote”, under specific circumstances.
Perhaps that’s why the IOC is establishing its safeguarding hubs. By holding hands with domestic ‘friends’, it can better avoid ever having to face the moment a U.S. Government takes down the NOC.
The Olympic reform legislation in the U.S. that requires the USOPC to assert greater oversight of the NGBs and provides the USOPC with bigger weapons to discipline federations judged to have failed when it comes to protecting athletes. The Bill obliges the USOPC to establish clear procedures and reporting requirements on abuse.
Athletes are guaranteed a third of all NGB governing structure presence under the bill, which also makes provision for whistleblowers and renders retaliation a crime. The Act was founded on the hard work and courage of victims and their advocates, its importance to Olympic sport hard to overstate, say the architects of S2330.
Calls for the Senate to back the Olympic reform legislation included a Who’s Who of Olympic medallists in swimming, alongside some swim coaches and supporters.
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the 1984 Olympic 1500m freestyle champion, helped frame the Act as co-chairman of Team Integrity, the committee of Olympians and member of the American Olympic community advocating for an overhaul of the USOPC. Hogshead-Makar said:
This bill is a repudiation of the USOPC board’s adoption of a ‘money and medals’ corporate culture. This bill gives athletes far more rights, while holding the corporation to a higher standard of care for the athletes compromising our youth sports, feeder sports and elite sports programming. … I am grateful that after many years of bipartisan collaboration, this legislation will benefit those participating in the U.S. Olympic Movement. The Olympics are a unique treasure for us. Striving for excellence, to be the best-of-the-best, reflects our American identity … Our quest remains: to fix a broken sport governance system on behalf of those most vulnerable in the Olympic Movement, and those most impacted by the Sports Act. These legislators answered the call. I look forward to working collaboratively to assure that athletes are equal stakeholders in USOPC governance.
Those developments in the United States unfolded almost 30 years after USA Swimming created an Abuses Committee to look into a growing crisis. In 1991, the committee recommended a long list of Safe Sport measures, the bulk of which did not make the rule book until 2010 not long after it was revealed there was a list of coaches and others banned for life by the national aquatics federation. Today, that list runs to around 300 names, including more than 200 banned for life, the bus of which involved matters of sexual misconduct, and the rest those currently serving a timed suspension for a variety of abusive behaviour.
Why has it taken so long?
The IOC is not Bolt-like in its speed when dealing with abuse and its impact on athletes. Take the sporting crime of the 20th century: GDR doping. All the evidence the IOC needed was published in Stern magazine in Germany in November 1990, when Manfred Höppner, one of the three big heads of the East German doping program and a member of the IOC’s Medical Commission, admitted in an eight-page spread that banned substances had fuelled the nation’s extraordinary above-eight punch in a range of Olympic sports for 20 years.
The feature, headed Wie die DDR Sieger machte (How the GDR made winners), included several lines that hinted at why the IOC may have developed a serious case of wilful blindness, an affliction that it suffers form to this day: not only was the IOC-accredited laboratory in Kreischa part of the headquarters of the doping program by virtue of its role testing samples to make sure that no positive test (and there were many) ever made it outside the GDR, but Höppner had been asked by Juan Antonio Samaranch, the then IOC president, to write a report that would instruct Olympic and anti-doping bosses where to draw the line off “doping” and “sports medicine” that was acceptable in the context of the workloads and aspirations of athletes.
In other words, the fox was asked to tell the boss of the chicken shed whether the locks were up to it or not.
And all the while, Thomas Bach was working his way to the top of the pile. As a German Olympian and lawyer, well connected to politicians politician, had he not read the Stern series in 1990, or the heavily detailed academic papers of professor Werner Franke nor the Doping - from research to fraud book penned by Franke and his partner Brigitte Berendonk, published in 1991?
That was the year Bach was appointed to the IOC. In 1995 he was appointed chairman of the Appeals Chamber of the International Court of Arbitration for Sport. In 1996 he was elected to the executive board of the IOC … on his way up to president in 2013. In other words, he’s been there all the while.
Wonderful that in 2023 he should have taken a great interest in safeguarding, a crisis that has been a p[art of Olympic sport for as long as he’s been involved, as an athlete and then a politician.
Why the wait? Could it have something to do with pending elections and a will to outstay his term at the top, as already suggested at the IOC session in Mumbai?
Whatever the answer, safeguarding and abuse of athletes, past and present, will be one of the big themes that THE INQUISITOR will focus on with the kind of passion that the IOC tells us it has for its hubs and newfound responsibility for athlete welfare.