The best sporting event on the calendar is finally happening: We are mere weeks away from the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. As we near the end of the pandemic, and sports begin to return to normal, it looks like the world will be able to witness perhaps the purest form of sport the world has to offer.
However, the games will not be going off without controversy. The pandemic is still an issue, as Japan is still battling outbreaks and has not been able to get the vaccine largely distributed amongst its population. Although the opposition to the games have declined somewhat since March, Japan’s population is largely in favor postponing the games for yet another year or even canceling them altogether. However, this would open the country up to potential lawsuits from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The pandemic is not the only issue surrounding these games. For the first time in history, a transgender athlete will be competing in the games. This, of course, will come with its own set of issues, but at least for these games, it is relegated to one sport. The larger controversy is in regards to the IOC’s Rule 50, which disallows athletes from making any political statements on the playing field or the podium. The reasoning for this is stated in the official Olympics rulebook: “It is a fundamental principle that sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference. Specifically, the focus for the field of play and related ceremonies must be on celebrating athletes’ performance, and showcasing sport and its values.”
This is a surprisingly refreshing take from an athletics organization. We have seen leagues here in the United States allow for all sorts of protests during play, printed on playing surfaces, and even on the backs of jerseys. It is nice that spectators will be able to enjoy the competition without the looming possibility of being hit over the head with politics. And don’t worry - athletes will still be able to make their political statements in press conferences, interviews, and before and after the games without ramifications. The ban is only in effect for events on the field of play and the podium.
Speaking of ramifications, this is where the IOC will run into some issues, because there are no standardized disciplinary actions listed. According to that same IOC rulebook, should an athlete violate the Rule 50, the result is that “each incident will be evaluated by their respective National Olympic Committee, International Federation and the IOC, and disciplinary action will be taken on a case-by-case basis as necessary.” The IOC has given themselves leeway here to deal with political statements in any way they choose.
Is a big-name athlete given more of a leash than a nobody? How can an athlete knowingly entering their last games be held accountable on their last event? Let’s look at it this way. In the unlikely case where the US men’s basketball team is eliminated from medal contention, LeBron James takes out a Sharpie and writes “BLM” on his sneaker in the last two minutes of the game. This is probably James’ last Olympic games and there will be no medal to take away - and LeBron is as big a name as there is in sports.
This is not to say that this exact scenario will definitely happen. But in an age where political statements are so commonplace, and the rule against making one is so unpalatable to so many, the odds that no political statements will be made - even one as simple as turning one’s back to a county’s flag during a National Anthem - is almost unfathomable.
These games will be the test. If the athletes of the world can get through two weeks in Tokyo without breaking Rule 50, then perhaps there is hope that one day sports can be sports again. It may take some time, but having an organization take a stand against political statements and succeeding gives fans a hope for a politics-less future. Should there be even one flagrant violation of the rule, it’s possible we will be seeing politics dominate sport for a long time into the future.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.