One of the fundamental principles enshrined in the Olympic Charter is the principle of neutrality. According to this principle sport must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference. This principle has been put to a major test by the international sport community’s response to the Russian invasion on Ukraine.
Acting upon the suggestion from the International Olympic Committee itself, international sport governing bodies began suspending Russian and Belarussian teams from participation in international competitions and relocating major sport events to other countries.
This is not the first time such sport sanctions have been used, but probably the first time the retaliation is so broad and the measures are used against a major country and an actual sport powerhouse. This forces us to ponder the said neutrality principle to define its limits.
The problem is best understood when the principle of neutrality is juxtaposed with another fundamental principle of the Olympic Charter, namely that “the goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”. In other words sport’s purpose is to protect and promote fundamental human rights.
The problem at hand, therefore, is essentially that of delimiting fundamental human rights and politics. Sport – and sport sanctions e.g. in the form of banning states from international competitions – must not be used to pursue political goals. But they can and in fact must be used to promote human rights.
It is important in this context to understand why sport must not be used to pursue a political agenda. This is because of sport’s extraordinarily double-edged potential to either unite humankind over universal values or antagonize whole nations, political blocks or social groups and pitch them against each other.
Sport serves the goals of Olympism when it protects and promotes values which are common to the whole international community, except maybe for some marginal extremist groups, whose views do not affect the functioning of the community as a whole. Whereas it undermines these goals if it is used for the pursuit of agendas concerning highly controversial and divisive subjects. Importantly, if we talk about international sport we have to look at what is controversial internationally, and while some subjects may be perfectly uncontroversial in the entire society of a given state, they may be highly objectionable to the people of another country and therefore be divisive and controversial from the viewpoint of the entire international community as a whole. Political means and international political institutions designed to promote inclusive debate and compromise, not sport, which by design stirs up emotions, should be used to pursue goals and resolve differences in these latter areas (this is subject to and must be balanced against rights and freedoms of individual athletes who wish to take a stance on such divisive issues, but this is a different subject).
The above observation is helpful in considering when international sport institutions are protecting human rights and when they are already wandering into the field of politics. The right to life, the laws prohibiting aggressive wars, protecting civilians during armed conflicts, and punishing war crimes are all propositions that no reasonable person in the world, thinking objectively, would seek to question or undermine.
Even if some or even large sections of Russian society stand behind their government in the heat of the moment and under the influence of wartime propaganda, we can safely assume that no reasonable member of that society, if asked individually and abstractly, would defend the idea that invading and bombarding a sovereign state, which has not attacked one’s country, should be legal. Or that a military invasion without a declaration of war, bombarding civil targets merely to spread terror among the civil population, attacking hospitals and schools, or threatening with nuclear annihilation those who chose to interfere on the opposing side are acceptable.
This is why the actions taken by international sport governing bodies in response to Russia’s assault on Ukraine are consistent with the principle of neutrality of sport. They do not seek to achieve a political agenda but to realize the goal of Olympism, which is “to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”. The fact that the sport community failed to take the same measures in the past, when its other members deserved similar treatment, is a problem. But it is not a reason not to take them now.
Complaints of Russian sport governing bodies alleging that the measures taken against them are abusive, will fail. Apart from the arguments presented above, the complainants hands are unclean in this instance. They have been supporting and enabling their authoritarian government for too long to now legitimately invoke the principle of neutrality.
Stanisław Drozd, adwokat, Sports Law practice, Wardyński & Partners