INTERNATIONAL Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach (L) and chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission Kirsty Coventry attend a press conference after closing an executive board meeting at the IOC headquarters on Thursday.—AFP
INTERNATIONAL Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach (L) and chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission Kirsty Coventry attend a press conference after closing an executive board meeting at the IOC headquarters on Thursday.—AFP

LAUSANNE: Politicians and athletes should keep politics out of this year’s Tokyo Olympic Games to protect the event’s neutrality and its status as a peaceful meeting place, Inter­national Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said on Thursday.

The Games have seen both political protests by athletes in the past as well as boycotts of nations and Bach said any infusion of politics into the Games in Tokyo starting on July 24 would not be welcome.

Tensions between the United States and Iran have risen sharply in recent days prompting major concerns across the world, while South Korea has said there is an urgent need to improve ties with North Korea.

China, Japan and South Korea recently agreed to work together to promote dialogue between the United States and reclusive North Korea.

“The mission of the Olympics is to unite and not to divide. We are the only event in the world that gets the entire world together in a peaceful competition,” Bach told reporters after a meeting with the IOC athletes’ commission chief Kirsty Coventry. “I ask them (politicians and athletes) to respect this mission of the Olympic Games and in order to accomplish this mission we must be politically neutral.

“Otherwise we would end up in this divisive and boycott situation. I ask them to respect this political neutrality by not using them (the Olympics) as a stage for their political purposes.”

The Games of 1980 and 1984 were hit by boycotts that did not have any results, Bach said.

“The boycotts we had particularly in the 1980s with Moscow and the counter-boycott in Los Angeles which brought the Games to the brink of demise... had no effect whatsoever.

“Sport was a kind of a scapegoat because all the other political divisions were not affected. The Moscow boycott did not change anything in Afghanistan at the time and the counter-boycott in 1984 did nothing to change politically the United States or the foreign policy in the US”

More recently, at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics, Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby was sent home after refusing to shake the hand of Israeli Or Sasson after their bout.

In October 2019 Iran’s judokas were banned indefinitely from international competitions until it could provide strong guarantees that its athletes would be allowed to face Israelis.

The ban followed a protective suspension imposed on the Iran Judo Federation in September 2019 for putting pressure on one of its fighters to withdraw from the world judo championships to avoid having to face an Israeli opponent.

SPONSORSHIP ROW

A controversial rule in the Olympic Charter limiting athletes’ sponsorship opportunities during the Games is benefiting thousands more athletes who do not have major financial backers, the IOC said.

Rule 40 of the Olympic charter states that Games athletes cannot allow their “person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games”.

It is aimed at protecting the rights of the International Olympic Committees own Olympic sponsors who contribute billions of dollars to the organisation of the Games.

However, the German Cartel Office ruled in February 2019 that the IOC and the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) were subject to competition laws and had to grant more rights for promotional activities ahead of and during the Games.

The decision triggered changes in several countries in favour of athletes and their personal sponsors, including in the United States, ahead of this year’s Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

“With Rule 40, the conversation was about the solidarity model and how as a commission we very much feel there needs to be an understanding, how we look at it from a global aspect and not from an individual aspect,” Coventry said. “We want people to understand that there are athletes that come from different backgrounds. There are so many more athletes that benefit from the solidarity model.”

Athletes had complained for years that the rule was severely restricting them from benefiting financially at the peak of their sporting careers which are the Olympic Games and instead gave all the power to the IOC.

The IOC said the redistribution of more than 90 percent of its own revenues — the majority of which comes from broadcasters and sponsors — was vital for many athletes, federations and national Olympic Committees with limited resources.

“You go [to the Games] as a team and not as an individual,” she said, admitting that there were different opinions among athletes. “We are always open and willing to work with any athletes’ group. We have an open door policy. It makes all of us better understand the landscape and what they are going through.”

Published in Dawn, January 10th, 2020