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Thursday, July 29, 2021

‘If athletes want to use the podium it should be embraced because social injustices are happening’

Rob Koehler, director general of Global Athlete - one of the organisations which has asked IOC to change Rule 50, which bans protests at the Olympics - speaks about why athletes must have the freedom to raise their voice at the Games.

Written by Nihal Koshie | New Delhi |
Updated: August 17, 2020 9:04:40 am
OlympicsRob Koehler, the director general of Global Athlete, was a former deputy director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Global Athlete, a body that represents the athlete’s voice, is one of the organisations which has asked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to change Rule 50, which bans protests at the Olympic Games, including kneeling, a popular form during the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Global Athlete has previously called for reforms in the International Weightlifting Federation and collaborated with athlete groups like AthletesCAN, Athleten Deutschland and British Athletes Association, among others, to push for an open public hearing of the case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport related to non-compliance by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA).

Rob Koehler, director general of Global Athlete, spoke to The Indian Express about why athletes must have the freedom to raise their voice at the Olympic Games. Excerpts:

Global Athlete has written a petition to the IOC on Rule 50, in which you have said that to threaten athletes with removal from the Olympic Games or Paralympic Games is a sign of imbalance of power between sports leaders and athletes. How big is the disconnect between athletes and decision makers?

What we have seen for many years is that the structure of sport itself does not allow athletes to have a say in decisions that affect them. The No.1 stakeholder in sport is the athlete, and without the athlete the sport doesn’t run.

Athletes have not had a say in rules which affect them. That is one of the reasons we are seeing… if you look at all the issues relating to everything that is happening in sport, from sexual abuse to physical abuse, athletes are afraid to speak up because this power imbalance is so large. There is a real fear of retribution. Athletes don’t have the power, and they don’t have athlete groups behind them, supporting them or protecting them. That is what we want to see changed. And that comes with independent athlete representation.

Explained | Athletes can’t take a knee at the Olympics; will that now change?

The important thing to look at is that in the current structure of athlete commissions globally, this is not to blame the athletes themselves, but the structures they are put into. At both the IOC Athletes’ Commission or the International Paralympic Athlete Commission. At the IOC Athletes Commission, when you become a member you are required to sign an Olympic oath. And that Olympic oath says that they have to support all decisions of the IOC and the Olympic movement. So if athletes’ opinion differs from that of the IOC, technically you can’t speak up without breaching the oath in the charter. Right there you have a problem.

What about Rule 50 and why is there such a disconnect with what athletes want?

We think the IOC has been out of touch in terms of what athletes want in terms of Rule 50 and the ability to express their opinions. The IOC contradicts themselves. The IOC talks about sport as the mechanism for social change and creating a better society. It is not just sport but they say it is more than that.

Athletes are leaders, athletes are influencers and if social injustice is happening in this world, such as the Black Lives Matter, surely we should be giving them the platform to speak for change. So if athletes want to use the podium, which is never an easy decision to make, it should be embraced because there are social injustices happening.

The IOC needs to change their stance. They have a way of amending it and changing words as opposed to abolishing it. Abolishing it means using the charter of human rights to guide the discussion, what is appropriate for protesting and not how people feel. Human rights is not about what people feel about something but it is the fundamental right they have. And to carry out surveys on how athletes feel about the issue is not the right way to go about it. You need to be driven by human rights.

Reports say the IOC Athletes’ Commission are doing surveys. In a way, the IOC Athletes’ Commission is trying to make a change. There is a suggestion that there could be a minute’s silence before the opening ceremony at the next Olympic Games.

I have seen some of the surveys, the IOC has not released the surveys (on Rule 50) but I have seen that. Those surveys were filled with leading questions. So the methodology in terms of getting answers was really not really that strong. The whole idea of having a moment of silence to me is another reflection of everything that is wrong. A moment of silence does not provide a platform for people to speak up in what they believe in. So what does that moment of silence represent. We always say silence means complicity so you are complicit if you are not speaking up. So we believe that voice needs to be heard and if athletes want to speak on issues or raise issues of social injustice, they should be allowed to.

But at the same time, the IOC says athletes can express their views during press conferences and in the mixed zone. In a way the IOC has given the athletes an outlet to express their opinion.

I agree they have moved a little bit, but it is simply not enough because here again you are controlling when athletes can speak up. An athlete trains for the 10 years of his or her life, athletes make very little money if any. And if they get to the podium one day and they want to use it for what they believe in as a mechanism for social change, they should be allowed to do it.

The IOC should be saying it is a great opportunity for the Olympic movement to be at the heart of a global movement for change, to raise awareness to social injustices. Human rights declaration clearly indicates where you have acceptable ways of expressing (protests). You can’t judge propriety of a human rights’ statement before a person actually speaks out. That is always judged after and not before.

The IOC’s rules are very ambiguous. If you speak up or if you protest, something may happen. What will happen? Case to case basis could mean, if you are the top basketball player in the world maybe we won’t sanction because we know we will get sued. But if you are a lower level athlete, it is more likely they will make an example of that athlete. You can’t have rules that are not clear or provide a framework about what the consequences are.

An athlete could well highlight something like say ‘White Lives Also Matter’. How do you decide which issue is ok to protest and which is not?

Like all human rights issues there will always be parameters and acceptable behaviours. Sport rules cannot trump human rights laws. Any form of expression needs to be overseen by independent human rights experts not sporting officials who have vested interests.

How does Global Athlete go about giving athletes a voice?

The way we collaborate is that we work with various athlete commissions that are taking a more independent approach and not being controlled by the organisations. The most recent statement we made with our athlete groups, I think we were seven groups that jointly spoke up about issues related to reforms in the World Anti-Doping Agency. So what we do is, anything we speak up or speak about, we speak with the athletes first and athlete groups first to make sure it is what they want. The one benefit we have is that we are not linked to a sport or governments. We have the ability to speak truth to power and speak for athletes on issues without a direct fear of retribution.

READ | Larry Nassar survivors offered $215M settlement by USA Gymnastics

What happened in USA Gymnastics was that the sexual and physical abuse went on for years but athletes didn’t have the confidence to speak out in public. Now do you think this will change?

Shocking to see one of the biggest scandals in gymnastics in the United States and what reforms and what the consequences have been carried out… very little. This is an example of why athletes’ voices need to be heard and you can’t silence them. If USA Gymnastics athletes didn’t continue to speak up, didn’t continue to be part of documentaries, continue to bring this to the forefront, if judge Rosemary Aquilina (who sentenced Dr Larry Nassar) didn’t allow every athlete to speak up during the trial, the sport would have probably said, ‘we had an issue, we resolved it, let us move on’. What happened in USA Gymnastics and the lack of action is unacceptable to every athlete out there.

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