The autonomy of the Olympic Movement

dsc00603The International Olympic Movement has always valued its autonomy. This is a critical feature of the institution that has ensured its ability to survive beyond the narrow confines of politics and the unfortunate incidence of wars.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), chief custodian of the International Olympic Movement, was established in times that posed serious challenges to the hallowed traditions of society such that de Coubertin and others who were involved in the establishment of the Modern Olympics considered sport a viable option for youths who were increasingly disenfranchised and marginalised in the so-called development process. A sort of chronic decadence encroached on society threatening the future by its impact on youths.
The Modern Olympics overseen by an autonomous institution, the International Olympic Committee, was established on the understanding that it would become the vehicle for facilitating the revitalisation of youth and the celebration of their immense talents through the medium of sport. The Olympic Games, programmed for every four years, would at once be a celebration of contemporary youth and a profound link with the Olympics of antiquity.
The IOC has therefore developed the concept of Olympism, aimed at promoting a set of positive values among those who involve themselves sin sport.
The Olympic Charter states:
Olympism is a philosophy of life,exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.
Importantly, the Charter notes that
The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.
Growth and change
The Olympic Movement has however grown well beyond the original ideas of the Founding fathers in many respects, not the least of which is the extent to which the leadership has often presented itself with the pomp and pageantry that is more characteristic of autocratic political leaders than facilitators of global transformation through peach and harmony in genuinely democratic traditions displayed through the medium of sport.
Over time the President of the IOC has allowed himself to be seen as something of an international political leader rather than the international peace-maker and protagonist of youth empowerment for a better world that he is supposed to be.
The traditional mode of identifying and selecting members for tenure on the IOC itself has led governments to raise serious concerns about the modus operandi of the institution. Some individuals are perceived to have been selected to the IOC based on their personal relationship with ‘insiders’ while others appear to have had the endorsement of their respective governments even at a time when the IOC itself claimed to distance itself from such linkages.
IOC members are then perceived to become near-political monoliths answerable to none but the IOC yet required to impact the sport and by extension the national development process.
In some respects while the Olympic Games have been transformed into the most attractive and successful sporting spectacle in the world it has challenged the quintessential elements of its very origins.
Governments and the Olympic Movement
The Olympic Charter states:
The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play. The organisation, administration and management of sport must be controlled by independent sports organisations.
Independence is one thing and political gamesmanship is another. It is no surprise therefore that in the face of the foregoing developments politicians in some countries have sought to reach out to take control of the NOC in their respective countries given its central place in the global social matrix. They recognise the power of the Olympic Movement.
At home they are often called upon to support of the NOC through the provision of better sporting facilities and assisting with the preparation of teams and their participation in the Olympics and other IOC-sanctioned competitions yet are not offered a relationship that seems consistent with their inputs. These governments do not relish being relegated to being merely a source of funding for the NOCs in their countries yet have no sound relationship.
Unfortunately too the NOCs have been unwilling or unable to establish a meaningful relationship with their respective governments in these countries such that they are transparent in their dealings and clear in their developmental roles relative to the youths.
Governments are not favourably disposed to dispensing funds to organisations over which they do not exercise some sort of control or with whom they have an established relationship based on mutual understanding of their respective roles and responsibilities in the broader issue of genuine national development. No government would allow sporting organisations to engage in practices that seem inconsistent with its overall policy positions whether at the domestic, regional or international levels since these have implications for their own retention of the levers of political power at home.
Even in situations where the government does not dispense funds to the NOC it still sees itself responsible for the image of the country at home and abroad and therefore would wish to have anyone carrying its name in whole or in part conduct him/herself in a manner consistent with its policies and programmes.
In some countries the political and social traditions allow for a seamless relationship such that ministers of government can and often do hold top positions in the NOC simultaneously. In other countries the particular political philosophy allows for the same thing to occur but with little choice on the part of the Olympic Movement within the nation’s borders to have a choice in the matter. The IOC has not always been consistent in respect of how it treats these differing circumstances seemingly fearful of its impact in these nations. There has not always been a level playing field. To the extent that the IOC has been inconsistent in its conduct in this regard there will always be some governments that directly challenge the Movement’s autonomy.
In some instances the autonomy of the NOC has been taken to the extreme where the organisation does not see itself as being responsive to the dictates of national laws governing accountability and consequently, responsibility. It is the reason that several NOCs have found their members being hauled before national legal authorities to account for funds under their charge.
Changes in the operations of the IOC subsequent to the Salt Lake City scandal have not necessarily filtered down to impact the NOCs around the world in a manner that allows the Movement to feel comfortable. Strategic actions have not been taken to adequately address the realities and what we have is overreaction on the part of governments and an IOC that responds by hoisting aloft the Olympic Charter without necessarily understanding the machinations of its local affiliate and the socio-cultural and socio-political ramifications. Perhaps the IOC and by extension the Olympic Movement may be deemed guilty of an inconsistency that while advocating universality among its membership does not necessarily convey an image of egalitarianism, fraternity and democracy.
Perhaps there is still too much of the top-down modus in evidence; too much of the more powerful nations influencing the Movement.
In many respects the Olympic Movement is so often a reflection of the political leadership of the more powerful nations of the world that small, poor, developing nations are left believing that there is little chance of them ever really impacting the decision-making process since no one effectively listens.
Autonomy of the Olympic Movement is therefore likely to come increasingly under threat from governments in light of the perception by them of the drive towards global recognition by those at the helm of the IOC and the NOCs and an accompanying modus operandi that seems to suggest to the respective national governments that they are almost a law unto themselves.
The autonomy of the Olympic Movement is still necessary but there must be a more concerted effort to arrive at a mechanism for ensuring that the relationship with governments in particular is structured to accommodate the socio-political and socio-cultural realities of each nation in a rapidly changing global environment.