Michael Pavitt

After months of discussion, it seems Rule 50 is being watered down after all.

My colleague Liam Morgan reported earlier this week that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Athletes' Commission has discussed a relaxation of the rule, which currently says that "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

He reported that this could include situations like when players line-up before football matches and swimmers walk into the arena or are introduced on the platform prior to their event. The proposal would need to be approved by the IOC Executive Board.

The relaxation seems quite a sensible one.

One aspect to consider is that the IOC Rule 50 would have clashed with the position adopted by FIFA, as well as UEFA and domestic leagues.

Most governing bodies in football have allowed demonstrations prior to matches, with the likes of the Premier League having approved of the initial support for taking the knee for the Black Lives Matter campaign. This was later rebranded under a "No Room for Racism" banner to distance themselves from alleged links to political movements.

The decision has arguably prevented governing bodies from receiving criticism for blocking campaigns, with the focus instead shifting towards players and teams on how they wish to shape and articulate their message.

The debate was recently heated in the United Kingdom prior to the start of the UEFA European Championship, reigniting discussion after players had taken the knee behind closed doors throughout the domestic season.

The relaxation would prevent the IOC from clashing with the position largely adopted in football ©Getty Images
The relaxation would prevent the IOC from clashing with the position largely adopted in football ©Getty Images

England manager Gareth Southgate penned an open letter to fans on the Players Tribune to call for their backing, after some fans booed the gesture in warm up games.

"I know my voice carries weight, not because of who I am but because of the position that I hold," he wrote. "I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players.

"It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate."

The position of football and the recent debate has surely contributed to the IOC Athletes’ Commission’s thought process.

After all, Britain’s women’s football team will be among the very first athletes in action at Tokyo 2020, with their match against Chile taking place two days prior to the Opening Ceremony.

The explanation and support of the Football Association to the England team’s position makes it almost certain the team would take the knee ahead of that match, although no official confirmation has been provided to date.

In truth, it would have been a story either way.

If the team opted not to take the knee prior to the match it could have been viewed as players buckling in the face of Rule 50. A demonstration would have made the British team a test case for the rules. 

Given the United States kick off only an hour after the British team, a demonstration of sorts seems inevitable.

It would have posed the question as to whether the IOC really has the stomach to punish athletes at the Games for such demonstrations. The timing would have particularly awkward given the headlines it could have generated ahead of the Opening Ceremony of an already complicated Games.

My personal view is that the IOC would opt against punishing either side if they made a demonstration, arguably rendering Rule 50 obsolete prior to the Games even getting underway.

It is worth noting that the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee has publicly indicated it will not sanction its athletes for peaceful demonstrations at the Games. insidethegames understands other National Olympic Committees have taken similar positions, with athletes likely to be advised to consider the impact on other participants should they decide to demonstrate.

Podium protests would still be prohibited under the restrictions ©Getty Images
Podium protests would still be prohibited under the restrictions ©Getty Images

Should the IOC’s relaxation be officially confirmed, it would mark a significant departure from its previous position. While critics have called for Rule 50 to be abolished entirely, the relaxation would already make its impact wafer thin.

The Athletes' Village and Ceremonies would be off-limits for demonstrations, while differing opinions could be expressed over whether podium protests can be justified.

The most obvious argument in support would be John Carlos and Tommie Smith at Mexico 1968, images etched into the tapestry of the Olympic Games.

However, an argument can be made over whether it would be appropriate for a silver or bronze medallist to protest on the podium, potentially upstaging the gold medal winner's biggest achievement of their career.

The potential wording of the IOC Athlete Commission position that any demonstration must "uphold the Olympic values and not be directed against anyone specifically" would also give the IOC some protection, should an athlete make a provocative gesture.

An example perhaps is when FIFA fined Switzerland’s Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri at the 2018 FIFA World Cup for making the gesture of a double-headed eagle, the symbol on the Albanian flag, when celebrating goals against Serbia. The gesture was viewed as provocative due to the players being ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, given the Kosovan war in the late 1990s.

Given the two-year debate over the merits and problems with Rule 50, it will be fascinating to see how incidents are dealt with during next month’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.