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New IOC President Should Learn Lessons from Sochi

Human Rights Are an Integral Part of the Olympic Spirit

Many in Germany seem to be getting ready for a German to become the next president of the International Olympic Committee. Thomas Bach, president of the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB), has, according to local and international media, a good chance of being elected to the top IOC job at a congress in Buenos Aires on September 10.


This week the German government offered Bach its backing and Der Spiegel, a German news magazine, published a lengthy, critical, profile of the former fencing champion. Other media have reported various intrigues linked to his candidacy. The scene is set.


Yet despite this build-up, little attention has focussed on what Bach – or any of the other five (male) contenders for the job – would do if they win. How would the IOC be made a better organisation in honouring the Olympic spirit, under his leadership?


We have a suggestion. The victor should use his acceptance speech to propose a reform of the IOC that would put the “preservation of human dignity” – a core element of the Olympic Charter – back at the heart of the Olympic movement. This often gets lost as the IOC undertakes selection of its Olympic host cities, focusing on technical assessments of ski jumps and sports stadiums and the other elements of a successful Games. Starting with the next IOC president, respect for human dignity and rights should also count as a necessary element of success.


The IOC’s experience in the build-up to the winter Olympics in Sochi, southern Russia, in February 2014 underlines why such a re-focussing is necessary - and in the organisation’s long term interest.


As happened with the Beijing Olympics in 2008, preparations for Sochi have been overshadowed by reports of numerous human rights abuses linked directly to the games. Thousands of local residents have lost their homes to make way for Olympic venues. Many migrant labourers who are building the venues, have been deprived of fair wages. Several local activists and journalists who have criticized Olympics preparations have faced pressure to keep silent.


A reform of the IOC to create a standing committee that monitors and addresses these human rights concerns in host countries would be a big step in ensuring that future Games aren’t tarnished by the same types of abuses.


The recent controversy over Russia’s new law targeting freedom of expression about sexuality including how it could affect participants at the Sochi Games is a prime example of why such a reform is needed. Rather than condemning the law as blatantly violating the Olympic Charter’s prohibition on discrimination, the IOC has taken half-hearted measures to secure so-called “assurances” from the Russian authorities that the law will not impact those visiting Russia for the Olympics.


The Russian minister responsible has given these “assurances” that his country upholds the Olympic Charter. Yet, he defended the law and said that it would of course be in force during Sochi games – embarrassingly, stripping all meaning from the IOC’s “assurances.”


Such developments reflect negatively on the credibility of the IOC and the meaning of the entire Olympic movement. The new president needs to draw a line under this sorry episode, and ensure future Olympic Games are held in an environment that protects, not undermines, human rights.


Hugh Williamson is Director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. @hughawilliamson

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