The president of the International Olympic Committee writes about the relationship between sport and politics, and about the power of the Olympic spirit to “contribute to unity in diversity”.
Participating in the Olympics is an incredible experience for any athlete, but it is also a great lesson in humility when you realize that you are participating in something much greater. You are part of an event that unites the world. At the olympic games, we are all the same. Everyone abides by the same rules, regardless of social origin, gender, race, sexual orientation, or political belief.
The first time I experienced this magic was at the Olympic Games in Montreal 1976. From the moment I settled in the Olympic Village, I could feel that Olympic spirit come to life. Living with other athletes from around the world opened my eyes to the unifying power of sport.
As athletes, we are competitors in sport, but at the Olympic Village we all live together peacefully under one roof. Every time we Olympians meet, no matter where we come from or when we compete in the Games, the topic of all conversations immediately revolves around this shared experience.
However, an incident clouded my first Olympic experience. Shortly before the opening ceremony, I looked out my room window at the Olympic Village and saw a large group of African athletes with suitcases. Many of them were crying, others bowed their heads dejectedly. After asking what was happening, I learned that at the last minute their governments had decided boycott the Games, so they had to leave. Desolation to see how his Olympic dream was broken, shattered at the last moment after many years of hard work and enthusiasm, still haunts me today.
This heralded another watershed moment four years later, when I experienced the political impotence of sport in the boycott of the Olympic Games Moscow 1980. As chairman of the West German Athletes Commission, I was strongly opposed to this boycott, because it punished athletes for something we had nothing to do with: the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet army.
I realized that sports organizations had very little, if any, political influence, and as athletes we had very little to say. Our voices were not heard by politicians or by our sports leaders. It was a very humbling experience.
In the end, the West German Olympic Committee was one of many who boycotted the Games. We are not consoled that this boycott has ultimately been shown not only to punish those who do not deserve it, but also to it also had no political effect: the Soviet army spent nine years in Afghanistan. In fact, the 1980 boycott only triggered the revenge boycott of the following Olympics: Los Angeles 1984.
Today I keep thinking about these two experiences. They made it clear to me that the core mission of the Olympic Games is to bring together the world’s best athletes from 206 National Olympic Committees in a peaceful sports competition.
The Olympics have nothing to do with politics. The IOC, as a non-governmental civil organization, is strictly politically neutral at all times. Neither the adjudication of the Games nor the participation in them is a political judgment with respect to the host country.
The Olympic Games are governed by the IOC, not by governments. The IOC invites NOCs to participate and invitations do not come from the government of the host country. It is the NOC that then invites its political authorities to accompany its athletes at the Games. The head of state of the host country can only say one sentence, written by the IOC, to officially open the Games. No other politician is authorized to play any role, not even during medal ceremonies.
The Olympic Games do not seek financial gain. The IOC reinvests 90% of its income in athletes around the world, especially in developing countries. The money goes to the organizers of the Olympic Games, who offer athletes the conditions to excel.
The Olympics can only bring everyone together through sport if everyone can participate. That is why solidarity benefits all athletes around the world and not just a few countries or a few sports. Our money benefits all athletes on the 206 National Olympic Committees, the IOC Refugee Olympic Team and all Olympic sports, thus ensuring a true universality and diversity.
The Olympic Games are, above all, sport. Athletes embody the values of excellence, solidarity and peace. They also express this inclusion and mutual respect, being politically neutral on the playing field and during ceremonies.
Sometimes this emphasis on sport must be reconciled with the freedom of expression that all athletes also enjoy at the Olympic Games. Therefore, there are rules for the field of play and ceremonies, which protect this sporting spirit. The Games can only display their cohesive power if they all show respect and solidarity for others. Otherwise, they will degrade and become a space for manifestations of all kinds, which divide rather than unite the world.
The Olympic Games cannot prevent wars or conflicts Nor can they tackle all the political and social challenges of our world, but they can be an example for a world in which, following the same rules, everyone respects each other. The Olympic Games can inspire us to solve problems in a friendly and supportive way. They can build bridges that promote understanding between peoples and thus open the door to peace.
The Olympic Games are a reaffirmation of our shared humanity and contribute to unity in diversity. As I learned from personal experience, ensuring that the Olympic Games show this magic and bring the whole world together in peace is something worth fighting for every day.