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thinHKers Series 貼地哲學

Amoral Universalism: The Olympic Paradox

by Kate


The official news agency of the Chinese Communist Party, Xinhua, referred to calls for the boycott of the Beijing 2022 Olympics as a “selfish and ultimately harmful act,” asserting that the Olympics Games are “a tool … to encourage mutual understanding among people of all countries and regions, to popularize Olympism and to maintain world peace.”1 Similarly, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach has insisted that the Olympic Games “are about diversity and unity” and the IOC must be “beyond all political disputes.”2,3 Indeed, many maintain that politics should be kept out of sports because it pollutes and corrupts the pure, ideal essence of sports. For many sports fans, sport has an almost holy power that transcends the seedier aspects of political life.

Keeping politics out of the Olympics?

While sports may be separated from politics depending on the context, it is not difficult to see that the Olympics is inherently political, owing to how it is structured. First, there is the obvious fact that athletes cannot choose to represent themselves and must represent their countries or regions (i.e. National Olympic Committees) when participating in the Olympics. Secondly, hosts of the Olympics always aim to make the Games representative of their countries rather than simply the cities in which the Games take place, often infusing their opening ceremonies with nationalistic overtones despite the convention of naming the Games after the host city.4 A clear example that shows how these two facts alone are sufficient to introduce politics into the Olympics is the ‘two Chinas’ issue. The 2008 Beijing Olympics proved to be significant as a political tool for both the PRC and Taiwan. The PRC demonstrated its goal of unification, notably in establishing the torch relay route, but was unable to achieve its ultimate goal in the face of opposition from the Taiwanese Government.

Furthermore, the Olympics not only involves athletes but also involves citizens, taxpayers, and politicians. Interestingly, when organizing committees lobby politicians to pour unlimited tax money into Olympic spending, or when politicians try to win taxpayers’ support for Olympic bids, this is not considered ‘bringing politics into the Olympics.’ However, when protesters try to draw public attention focused on the misplaced spending priorities in the host city/nation, or to draw worldwide media attention to human rights abuses and injustices in the host nation, often with considerable success,5 they are accused of contaminating something ‘pure’ and ‘honourable’ by bringing politics into the Olympics. Unsurprisingly, it is often the individuals and institutions that have the most to lose from protests and boycotts who decry the ‘politicization’ of the Olympics.
One might argue that while politics might be embedded into the structure and operation of the Games, one of the central tenets of the Olympics is to look past our differences and to promote diversity and unity through sports. Thus, it might be argued that it is inappropriate to intentionally introduce political disagreements between countries into something that is supposed to “promote mutual understanding among people of all countries and regions” and “maintain world peace.”

The Olympics as a peace-promoting movement?

To analyze the above argument, we need to examine the concept of Olympism, which is the ‘philosophy’6 underpinning the Olympic movement. The term ‘Olympism’ was coined by the French pedagogue Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the IOC. One of the “Fundamental Principles of Olympism,” as stated in the Olympic Charter, 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.”7 According to de Coubertin’s idea of Olympism, the Olympic Games would be a transcendental celebration of the human family, which, with the universal appeal of sports, would somehow promote peace and understanding among the governments and regimes that participate in it.

Do the Olympics really have the peace-promoting effect that de Coubertin envisioned? Social and cultural historian John Hoberman argues not. In his paper “The Myth of Sport as a Peace-Promoting Political Force,” Hoberman argues that the common rhetoric employed by the IOC that the Olympic Movement is a peace-promoting movement is implausible and even “scandalous,” for two reasons.8

First, Hoberman argues that based on historical evidence, the IOC’s claims about the peace-promoting effects of the Olympics are hyper exaggerated.9 For example, during the protests that preceded the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games with regards to China’s human rights issues, then-IOC-president Jacques Rogge optimistically proclaimed that the Olympic Games were going to transform China, pronouncing two weeks before the opening that “for the first time, foreign media will be able to report freely and publish their work freely in China.”10 Needless to say, Rogge’s optimistic vision was shattered as half a month later, it would be confirmed that the Internet would continue to be censored for journalists. Furthermore, if we were to assess the Games’ peace-promoting effect in terms of a causal relationship between the Olympic Games and the absence or reduction of armed conflict, the fact that the century which followed the first modern Olympics Games in 1896 turned out to be the darkest and bloodiest in human history would let down anyone hoping to find such a relationship.

Secondly, Hoberman argues that the Olympics fails to qualify as a peace movement because the IOC has not met the minimum ethical and humanitarian standards required for international organizations to have credible peace-promoting effects.11 One of the several examples that Hoberman gives to illustrate his point was the 1936 Berlin (“Nazi”) Olympic Games, which served as a major platform for the Hitler regime to pull off one of the greatest propaganda coups in history.12 This pleased the Nazis so much that Hitler’s Foreign Office even nominated de Coubertin for the 1936 Peace Prize. The 1936 Berlin Olympics would continue to be considered by many as one of the most disgraceful episodes in modern Olympic history. Continuing their policy of ‘political neutrality,’ the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games were awarded by the IOC in 1981, one year after the South Korean military government carried out the Gwangju massacre.
Hoberman refers to the IOC’s commitment to political neutrality as “amoral universalism,” a term he uses to describe the IOC’s long history of collaborating with authoritarian and repressive regimes in the name of an all-embracing inclusiveness.13 The IOC’s amoral universalism is entirely compatible with the “Fundamental Principles of Olympism,” which specifies that discrimination with regard to politics or national origin is incompatible with the Olympic Movement.14 The basis for this policy of unconditional inclusion is that according to Olympism, the practice of sport is a human right.15

The practice of sport as a human right

One needs to demarcate between practicing sports within the comfort of one’s own home (or country) and participating in an international sports competition with major political significance. While it is plausible that the practice of sport is a human right, the claim that this right extends to guarantee a country’s inclusion in an international sports competition is far more questionable. A country’s inclusion in the Olympics should not be guaranteed regardless of its human rights record, for the reason that issues concerning fundamental human rights, such as the rights to basic liberties, should always take precedence over the supposed right to participate in an international sports festival. This was the premise of the African boycott of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the campaign against apartheid in South Africa, and currently, the call for boycott of the upcoming 2022 Beijing Olympics.

Final reflections on Olympism

Hoberman offers a lucid summary of the problem with amoral universalism: “Amoral universalism substitutes sportsmanship for ethics. But sportsmanship is actually a mere etiquette for the strong, the select community of potential victors, and ‘Olympism’ is a ministry to the healthy … it represents not ethics, but the flight from conscience, its suffering, and its doubt.”16 Indeed, Olympism has become a symbol for supposed ‘peace’ and ‘unity’ precisely because it is amoral. Rather than being an ally of ethics, Olympism is better interpreted as one of its antagonists.

Notes
  1. Xinhua, “Commentary: Diplomatic Boycott of Beijing 2022 Is Selfish and Harmful.” Xinhua News Agency, 30 Nov. 2021.
  2. Thomas Bach, “New Year’s Message 2022 – Olympic News.” IOC, 31 Dec. 2021.
  3. Thomas Bach, “The Olympics Are about Unity and Diversity, Not Politics and Profit. Boycotts Don’t Work.” The Guardian, 23 Oct. 2020.
  4. For further discussion on the issue of nationalism in the Olympics, see Carrington (2020) on “Cosmopolitan Olympism”. Carrington argues that the contradiction at the heart of Olympism, which posits the universal bond between humans through the pursuit of individual greatness yet positting that this universal bond is established through national allegiance, has never been resolved (p. 93).
  5. Hongkongers at McGill, “Blood in the Stadium.” The McGill Tribune, 18 Jan. 2022.
  6. Quotation marks are used here because it is suggested that de Coubertin’s Olympism does not suffice to be a legitimate philosophy, but rather might be more accurately characterized as a process philosophy (DaCosta, 2012) or an ideology (Loland, 1995).
  7. IOC, Olympic Charter, 2021, p. 8.
  8. John Hoberman, “The myth of sport as a peace-promoting political force,” p. 18.
  9. Ibid., p. 20.
  10. Andrew Jacobs, “China to Limit Web Access during Olympic Games.” The New York Times, 31 July 2008.
  11. John Hoberman, “The myth of sport as a peace-promoting political force,” p. 18.
  12. Howard Berkes, “Nazi Olympics Tangled Politics and Sport.” NPR, 7 June 2008.
  13. John Hoberman, “The myth of sport as a peace-promoting political force,” pp. 21-22.
  14. IOC, Olympic Charter, 2021, p. 8.
  15. Ibid.
  16. John Hoberman, The Olympic Crisis: Sport, Politics, and the Moral Order, p. 32.

Full Bibliography

Bach, Thomas. “New Year’s Message 2022 – Olympic News.” International Olympic Committee, IOC, 31 Dec. 2021, https://olympics.com/ioc/news/new-year-s-message-2022.

Bach, Thomas. “The Olympics Are about Unity and Diversity, Not Politics and Profit. Boycotts Don’t Work.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 23 Oct. 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2020/oct/24/the-olympics-are-about-diversity-and-unity-not-politics-and-profit-boycotts-dont-work-thomas-bach.

Berkes, Howard. “Nazi Olympics Tangled Politics and Sport.” NPR, NPR, 7 June 2008, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91246674.

Carrington, Ben. “Cosmopolitan Olympism, humanism and the spectacle of ‘race’.” Post-Olympism?. Routledge, 2020. 81-97.

DaCosta, Lamartine. “A never-ending story: The philosophical controversy over Olympism.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 33.2 (2006): 157-173.

Hoberman, John. “The myth of sport as a peace-promoting political force.” The SAIS Review of International Affairs 31.1 (2011): 17-29.

Hoberman, John. The Olympic Crisis: Sport, Politics, and the Moral Order. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Aristide O. Caratzas, Publisher, 1986.

Hongkongers at McGill. “Blood in the Stadium.” The McGill Tribune, SPT, 18 Jan. 2022, https://www.mcgilltribune.com/opinion/blood-in-the-stadium-170122/.

International Olympic Committee, Olympic Charter, 2021.

Jacobs, Andrew. “China to Limit Web Access during Olympic Games.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 31 July 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/31/sports/olympics/31china.html.

Loland, Sigmund. “Coubertin’s Olympism from the Perspective of the History of Ideas.” Olympika 4 (1995): 49-78.Xinhua, “Commentary: Diplomatic Boycott of Beijing 2022 Is Selfish and Harmful.” Xinhua News Agency, 30 Nov. 2021, http://www.news.cn/english/2021-11/30/c_1310343408.htm.


About the author

Kate