The Dichotomy of Political Power and Political Position at the Olympic Games

Katharine Worth

In a world of ‘us’ and ‘them’, the Olympic Movement seeks to bring people together through the medium of sport. Peace, friendship, and fair play are the values perpetuated by the ideology of Olympism. Yet is this achievable? Are nationalism and politics interacting unfavourably within the Movement? The Olympics contains a dichotomic dynamic of political power and political position. This dichotomy sees nationalism and politics simultaneously weaken and endorse the Olympic Movement. Through developing the Refugee Olympic Team (EOR) and the ties to the United Nations (UN), the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has continued to consolidate its authority facilitating the spread and stability of the Movement.

Yet this, as well as nation-state structure and behaviours within sport, contradicts the IOC’s apolitical stance. A seemingly innocuous incident at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, when politically and historically contextualised, demonstrates that the political environment influences the athlete’s interaction with the Games – compromising the values of the Movement. It is suggested the IOC needs to reconsider the apolitical tag and acclimatise to the inevitability of politics and nationalism at the Games.

Political Power
The Olympic Movement has established itself by controlling nationalism and being political. However, the use of politics does not necessarily discredit the values perpetuated by the Olympic Movement. Relations with the international community have afforded political power to the IOC to develop the Movement. This has strengthened, implemented and upheld some of its values of Olympism.

Political power is necessary for the IOC to uphold Olympism and stabilise itself within the international community. The actions and ideas of the IOC are a by-product of the state system. In a world of nations, being a nation (or nation-like in the case of the IOC) provides some security, the ability to build partnerships and the capacity to achieve actions. By aligning itself closer to the UN and promoting certain values, the IOC has developed a power which attempts to guard the image of the Movement and remove accountability from political protests that may occur at the Games.

This partnership saw the UN granting the IOC permanent Observer status in 2009. The political power afforded by the status has given the IOC an important stage to share and implement the values of Olympism. Furthermore, the IOC are able to interact directly with nation-states and their representatives, as well as purse political gains and agendas. The IOC uses its political power to not let excessive politics in, but simultaneously uses this same power to enforce ideals and construct a reputation. This behaviour of the IOC is not apolitical, but more focused on self-preservation and legitimacy.

The IOC chose to create the EOR and develop a relationship with the UN for the political purposes of developing international legitimacy and power. Legitimacy is required for the IOC as it enables them to be recognised as a prominent governing body able to influence and be authoritative if necessary. Constructing the EOR proved a monumental step in the inclusion of refugees by allowing athletes to compete without a nation. The team was constructed to fit seamlessly within the IOC’s ideals, reaffirm the IOC as an international leader and provide leverage for the Movement.

The involvement of the EOR and its ties the UN highlights several points regarding political power of the IOC:

• In 2015 the EOR was constructed as a natural progression of the IOC adapting to global situations – but why then? In 1952, the Council of Europe had requested that refugees be included – but this was deemed impossible due to the statelessness. 2015 saw the UN declare a refugee crisis, thus the IOC responded with the formation of the team. This aided in developing closer ties to the UN. By demonstrating that the IOC’s Olympism values are synonymous with the UNs beliefs, the Movement established itself as an “unimpeachable” and humanitarian organisation.

• The EOR athletes became embodiments of Olympism. It was constructed that sport had aided them in overcoming the adversity they faced. Additionally, it reinforced the UN’s acknowledgement that sport (and the Olympic Movement) are essential methods to promote health, education, development and peace. This partnership has facilitated the IOC in extending its influence on international society while still promoting the values of Olympism. As a non-governmental organisation which relies on appearance, reputation and legitimacy, the IOC needs this support and recognition.

• Selecting EOR athletes from Africa and the Middle East suggests the IOC was safeguarding itself from retaliation by powerful states and could maintain its benevolent character. The entire selection process was shaped by the political situation.

Political Position
The IOC’s political position is that sport is apolitical. Established in the Olympic Charter is the decree that the Olympic Movement shall remain politically neutral. This attitude extends to the athletes as seen with Rule 50 ‘Advertising, demonstrations and propaganda’. Both Rule 50 and the apolitical stance has been reinforced with the rise of athlete activism and political collusion of governments. Yet, the IOC’s apolitical position is challenged and needs to be reconsidered because of the natural involvement of politics within the Olympics. The “natural” structuring around the nation-state and the behaviour of sport inherently invokes politics and nationalism which can neutralise the Movement by challenging the values of Olympism.

The IOC has diverted from its ideals because Olympism is based predominately on an unreflective, national(ist) foundation. Opting to structure the Games on the nation-state unit has prevented Olympics from truly becoming apolitical. Nationalism and politics can be located in all facets of the Games including athlete and national team selection (or exclusion), host city selection, funding, etc. While attempting to promote Olympism, the overwhelming presence of the nation-state lures politics into the Games. The IOC’s prevalent rhetoric of internationalism is undermined by organising around and eulogising the nation-state. Thus, while striving to be apolitical, it is politicised. The banal nationalised structures which form the Olympics are generated and influenced by politics.

At the Rio Games on the 12th of August controversy was sparked when Egyptian Judoka Islam El Shehaby refused to shake hands or bow after his defeat to Israel’s Or Sasson. This match exemplifies that politics enters the Olympic arena because athletes are embodiments of the nation, and nations carry political ideologies/attitudes. While judokas are not required to bow or shake hands, the IOC deemed the action as bad sportsmanship and against the values of Olympism. Historical and political relations between Egypt and Israel explain the interaction at the event.

This case highlights several points:

• Sport is another means where politics is expressed. In this case, historical wars between Egypt and Israel as well as the “cold peace” (meaning that the countries abide by the peace treaty, but domestically Egypt still treats Israel with distrust) shaped the interaction. El Shehaby claimed to have no issue with Sasson or his religion, rather it was the nation-state he represented.

• Violence and disrespect can be easily enacted upon at the Games. Surrogate warfare describes the occurrence of violent or hate-fuelled actions in sport. Athletes become state representatives and transform the event into a fight between nations. Pressures from social media, spectators and the El Shehaby’s own attitude towards Israel as an Egyptian shaped the interaction. While unwanted, violence and disregard for fair play and sportsmanship go against the Movement and its aspiring utopian ideals.

• The legitimacy, influence, meaning and attention of the Movement attracts politics to enter the Games.


The behaviour of nationalism and politics are characterised as a dichotomy of political power and political position. Underlying the discussion is the need for the IOC to rethink its apolitical stance. Politics and nationalism have proved important for the IOC in propagating its message and establishing legitimacy in the international community. The political power wielded by the IOC has enabled the Movement to be the aspiration of sport.

Yet, this power is political – thus against its apolitical stance. To maintain an apolitical stance is nearly impossible with the unreflective structuring of the nation-state and the character of sport. This leaves the Olympic Movement, politics and nationalism at an impasse.

Points to reflect upon:
• While difficult, could altering the structure or alleviating the nation-state help? Or recognising the involvement in politics and nationalism combat some of the more virulent behaviours?
• Allowing political activism may be a pandora’s box. Sport shouldn’t be a political chamber for arguments. But what about athlete activism which supports the Movements goals?
• Sporting diplomacy needs to be recognised and observed. Both the IOC and the athletes have performed in acts of sporting diplomacy. Athletes and non-state actors can participate in diplomatic strategies with positive and/or negative agendas.

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