The International Olympic Committee will not let athletes from Ukraine wear black arm bands to memorialize the 25 people killed during protests in the capital city of Kyiv this week, the Associated Press reports.
The Ukrainian Olympic Committee said its athletes wanted to wear the armbands as an “expression of sorrow and sympathy” a day after protests erupted in Kiev, setting the city aflame. At least 25 people, both protesters and police alike, were killed; more than 200 others were injured. The Ukrainians requested permission for the armbands from the IOC, which rejected the idea because such memorials are “impossible under the Olympic charter.”
These are the first two of the Fundamental Principles of Olympism listed in the Olympic Charter:
1. Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, 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 universal fundamental ethical principles.
2. 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.
It seems there is plenty of room under those ideals — particularly with regard to “a peaceful society” and “blending sport with culture and education” — to allow athletes to honor those killed in political protests in their home country. The Ukrainian athletes aren’t even taking a political stance. There were deaths on both sides of the protests, and the arm bands would have memorialized them all.
To the extent such memorials are “impossible,” they are so only because the IOC has no actual interest in living up to the flowery, happy-aren’t-we-all charter it adopts ahead of each Olympics. The IOC claims its movement exists to promote ideals of tolerance, peace, and understanding, that its Games exist to foster societal improvement and social education. But history proves that this is nothing more than pretense from a group that likes to think its Games cause the world’s problems to stop for a month every two years while we all come together for sport. The IOC is comfortable with the idea that the Olympics put a halt to conflicts and other problems. What it refuses to tolerate is any action around the Olympics that might help make that true.
The IOC gains plenty out of the perception that its Games foster global harmony and understanding, which is why it has no interest in making that perception a reality. Reality is ugly. In the world where the Olympics don’t naturally cure all ills and problems, living up to the Olympic Charter requires action or at least the accommodation of it. It means allowing “Free Tibet” posters in Beijing and LGBT rights protests in Russia. It requires standing up to governments that jail dissenters and kill protesters. It means accepting more John Carloses and Tommie Smiths, more “Under Protest” banners, and more questions about appropriate costs, security policies, and basic rights.
Allowing Ukrainians to memorialize dead protesters and police officers and the unrest in their country doesn’t rise to level of political protest that have taken place before, but it does require an acknowledgement of the fact that the world’s problems don’t stop when we light the Olympic flame.
The IOC wants to pretend they do. And it does so because actually applying its principles in a way that might cause the education, awareness, and change it claims to promote would pose a threat to the organization’s business and political interests and those of its hosts (that’s true in this instance, too, because Russia has an interest in how the Ukrainian protests play out).
Black memorial armbands aren’t impossible under the Olympic Charter. They’re impossible under an Olympic Committee that long ago rendered that charter irrelevant.