Antworten auf die Interview-Fragen des Asahi Shimbun

Die Interview-Fragen der Zeitschrift habe ich vorab schriftlich in englischer Sprache beantwortet. Sie wurden im Skype-Interview zusätzlich mündlich erläutert. Die Online-Fassung des Interviews findet sich hier: (in japanischer Sprache)


Topic: Rule 50 of the Olympic Charta

Interviewer: Mr Hiroki Toda of the Asahi Shimbun


  • We heard you were invited to the IOC Athletes’ Committee on the 16th of September, what kind of questions were asked?

I have not been asked specific questions. I was invited to the virtual meeting as a Sports Law Professor to present my professional views and insights on Rule 50, its objectives and its interference with the freedom of expression from a human rights perspective. There were no expectations or any restrictions. I was completely free to express my own opinion on the regulations. There were some additional questions from the Committee members but mainly regarding comprehension.

  • Your views towards Rule 50.  The objectives that are seen as reasonable.  Did it protect athletes and/or the Olympic games from political or social conflicts in the past?

Basically, I find Rule 50 reasonable, as it protects sports, its presentation, the athletes and the limits the commercialisation of the sport events. The sport event (in the sense of „the actual sport performance“,–its presentation) remains the focal point and is not superimposed, interfered, or blurred by other economic, political, cultural or other social messages. Those messages must not hinder athletes’ concentration on their sport performance and interfere with their focus and goal to achieve records. Sport performance itself (its presentation) remains apolitical and neutral. Finally, it protects commercial interests, because only neutral and clean Games help maximise the revenue of their commercialisation, of which the athletes always should benefit.

I am convinced that Rule 50 – and its parallel provisions of other big sport associations – have kept sports presentations free from simply becoming a projection screen for political and social issues which are usually so highly complex that they cannot be dealt with in a time window of a few seconds and reduced to a gesture or single-word message. These measures are ultimately about protection of the athletes.

  • How can it interfere with freedom of expression or human rights?

Freedom of expression is globally guaranteed in several constitutions and treaties. In a modern understanding, these basic or human rights do not only protect citizens from interference or abuse of power by state authorities, they also create a social system of objective rights and a community of shared values. This means that all members of the community may be bound – in designated ways – to the values deriving from these civil rights. By putting up a rule –– like Rule 50 –– which interferes with the human right of athletes’ “free speech “ – which it clearly does –, the IOC could violate the right of freedom of expression. If it does, the IOC needs a justification to make this violation lawful.

  • With all the movement now, some say Rule 50 should be abolished, some say it should be reformed.  What can be the best solution?

Nowadays, the sport associations and the IOC seem rather to encourage the athletes to participate in the shaping of public opinion on important current topics. Social media seems to give the athletes almost the same range for their messages, including presenting them during the competition. I would prefer a solution which gives more responsibility to the athletes, who will – as a consequence – be held liable for any reasonable or unreasonable remark they make in the public. I find it important to keep the sports presentations and the podium free from such messages. 

  • Taking a knee or raising a fist, do you think these gestures are to be permitted? Even on the podium or the field of play?

On the field of play politics have no place. We want to see high-class sports performance there. Gestures on the podium may be abusive, because they exploit a ceremony in favor of personal messages which is supposed to be dedicated to maximum sport performance and inner reflection on the competition –– however important or reasonable those messages may be. As aforementioned: The Gold medallist will have – in my opinion: lawfully – the opportunity to post his/her important message on their Instagram, reaching almost the same amount of people. Taking a knee or raising a fist in the assembly just before the game starts, like we have seen in the US, is a borderline case. They can be permitted, as the sports performance cannot be disturbed. 

  • Could you give us some examples of acceptable demonstration or “peaceful, respectable protest”?

I think that “no personal messages during competition” can be a clear enough and good enough regulation, although Rule 50 in its current state goes beyond that. Standardized logos for topics which clearly fall in the scope of the Fundamental Principles of the IOC charta (like a #BLM-logo for race equality or a small rainbow flag for equality in sexual orientation) can undoubtedly be permitted. Personal – in the sense of “unstandardized” – messages during competition cannot be permitted. Even if a commonly accepted Fundamental Principle is concerned, one will have to decide whether the concrete expression of the personal view is reasonable or unreasonable, right or wrong, worth seeing or not. We will want to keep this decision outside of the sports arena.

  • Do the IOC or any other sports organization have the right to punish/sanction those who violate this rule?

They clearly do. Sport events are organized by the associations exerting their own basic right “autonomy of associations”. Whenever the objectives of a rule serve the goal and the reason of their union – in this case: to enable and host sport competition, promote sports –, they are allowed to implement such a rule, though only to a reasonable degree. The right to implement such a rule encompasses the right to enforce it. Otherwise it would be useless.

  • Is it possible to preserve political or social neutrality in sports?

No. And it is a myth that sports are politically or socially neutral. They are not, which can easily be seen: If you do not promote race equality, equality in sexual orientation, integration, fair play and much more, you simply cannot form a team, you cannot participate in any sport, because these values are the basis of sports. This is both political and social. If a large association awards its global competition to a country only in exchange for – quite frequently – the pledge of  huge tax concessions, this is as much a political decision as awarding a tournament to a country with poor conditions of human rights. Independently, I believe that sports presentations should remain apolitical for the most part.

  •  What is your opinion towards the “Black Salute movement” in the 1968 Mexico Olympics?  Do you think they should not be sanctioned?

I strongly believe that these demonstrations do not belong there, at least assuming the measures of communication the athletes have today. With this being said, I do not think that any first violation of Rule 50 should be sanctioned immediately. The organizer of a competition clearly has some discretion whether a sanction is necessary on a case-by-case-basis. On the other hand the rule must not be blurred and must be upheld. The first offense may lead to a simple warning, a second offense must lead to a sanction. Athletes must learn that Rule 50 has important and just objectives they also benefit from.

  • What about US athletes like Gwen Berry in the 2019 Pan American Games.  Do you think they have the right to express their beliefs on the podium?

I do not think so, and I believeI have made myself very clear on this. She has other ways and other times to express herself on this – also in my view – very important topic.

  •  How did you view Naomi Osaka with her wearing masks with a victim’s name on them?  What kind of impact do you think that will have on the sporting world? 

There is no way doing this would be acceptable during the competition, meaning the actual tennis match. It is a borderline case when she wears the mask on the way to the pitch and in the side-areas. I think demonstrations like this can be allowed by the rules, but then rules need to be changed by the associations. I highly appreciate all these valuable contributions for a global fight for equality, justice and human rights. But as always: It must happen in the right place at the right time.

  • What should we, the media do to keep this discussion going?

Do report on it! Do report on strong opinions athletes have expressed in interviews, on their Facebook or Instagram. Do report on it in the context of their records and medals. Then these important messages get the range they deserve, but not at the expense of enjoyment of sports or of the dignity of a victory ceremony.