The Olympic Movement: Human Rights and Human Dignity

Olympic Flag at Big Ben

Human dignity is a fundamental tenet of the Olympic Movement. All members of the Olympic Movement are committed to work together to promote a peaceful society through sport.

The connection between the Olympic Games and the protection of human rights has its roots in the humanising concepts of modern Olympism, which were intended to build a pathway to peace and understanding for all peoples. In this spirit, United Nations General Assembly resolutions over the years have acknowledged the contribution of the Olympic Games to understanding, peace, and tolerance among and between peoples and civilisations.

There is a caveat. Sport is a powerful tool in the search for solutions to development issues and conflict situations, but it is not and never will be a cure-all. Sport alone cannot bring about peace or solve complex social problems, nor can it be a substitute for political processes in peace and reconciliation situations. Nor does the vast potential of healing through sport develop on its own, by some organic process of osmosis: it requires a carefully-managed approach to get it right and bring about constructive outcomes. The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) position limits its scope for concrete action. It is not a sovereign nation vested with governmental powers. It cannot initiate policies which are the preserve of elected governments, nor is it a human rights or humanitarian organisation per se. The IOC is an organisation primarily concerned with sport with the main remit of overseeing the organisation of the Olympic Games and, through its network of 205 National Olympic Commitees, to develop sport and its practice worldwide from grass roots to elite performance.

The IOC is a highly influential organisation. Through its role as guardian of the Olympic ideals, which embody the idea of building a peaceful and better world through sport, it has a moral responsibility to support good governance. That includes conforming to internationally recognised standards on human rights and preserving human dignity. The Olympic Charter gives expression to a clear relationship between human rights and the Games and it therefore incumbent on the IOC to uphold those rights and responsibilities.

The mass publicity that sport and in particular, the Olympics, engenders, shines a powerful spotlight on abuses of human rights and human dignity. This helps to shape public opinion and has led to calls for tangible action. Syria’s seemingly inexorable descent into civil war in 2012 led to the UK Government’s decision to refuse the head of the Syrian National Olympic Committee a visa to travel to London for the Games, because of his links to the Bashar Al-Assad regime whose violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters continues to receive worldwide condemnation.

Ahead of the Beijing Games, the clear connection between the Olympics and fundamental human values challenged the IOC to use the Olympics as leverage to ensure that the goals of Olympism and the Olympic movement left a positive human rights legacy. Opinions are mixed as to how far the Beijing Olympics had a positive effect but whatever the final verdict, Beijing 2008 ensured that trenchant criticism over China’s human rights record was at the very top of the international news agenda for months. Beijing 2008 also provided a unique opportunity for Olympic values to reach 400 million Chinese children, through the world’s largest-ever Olympic education programme in schools across China. It integrated the Olympic values of excellence, friendship and respect into the curriculum of more than 400,000 schools.

The IOC has a realistic appreciation about what it can contribute to human rights issues. It can and indeed does, help to harness sport as a power for good, both symbolically and very practically within communities. This has been the IOC’s direction of travel for well over a decade and it has robustly pledged to continue along that path.

Source: Berkley Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons