Unequal Olympics: An Open Letter to Jacques Rogge

By Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner

London – Huffington Post UK – 2 August 2012: http://goo.gl/3he1z


Dear Jacques Rogge & the International Olympic Committee

The IOC should enforce the Olympic Charter & prohibit discrimination

Rightly and commendably, the Olympic Charter forbids discrimination in sport.

The Fundamental Principles of Olympism state:

4. 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.

6. Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.

7. Belonging to the Olympic Movement requires compliance with the Olympic Charter


Despite this laudable commitment, many nations deny equal sporting opportunities, either by intention or default, to women athletes and to those from ethnic, religious, political and sexual minorities. They violate the Olympic spirit of equality.

This discrimination takes the form of a lack of equal access to sports facilities, competitions and the Olympic selection process.

Too often, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) does not enforce the Olympic Charter.

Even worse, discrimination is condoned at the highest levels of the IOC. This officially sanctioned discrimination is most explicit in the case of women competitors.

At London 2012, there are more Olympic events for men than for women, which means that male athletes have more opportunities to win medals than their female counterparts.

Gender discrimination exists in athletics, canoeing, rowing, wrestling, shooting, and boxing.

Some of the additional events for men are based on the sexist assumption that women are the weaker sex. These male-only events include the 50 km walk and the decathlon.

In two instances, men are denied the opportunity to compete in perceived feminine events: rhythmic gymnastics and synchronised swimming. This is equally discriminatory and offensive.

Symbolic of women’s unequal treatment at the Olympics, the IOC president will present the gold medal to the winner of the men’s marathon but not to the winner of the women’s marathon. This signals to the world that the men’s marathon is deemed more prestigious than the women’s marathon, which is an insult to women athletes and to all women everywhere.

As well as practising gender discrimination itself, the IOC colludes with gender discrimination by competing nations and their National Olympic Committees by not requiring them to comply with the equality provisions of the Olympic Charter.

This discrimination against women is, in some instances, a form of gender apartheid. But whereas race apartheid was condemned by the IOC and resulted in South Africa being banned from the Olympics, the separation and unequal treatment of women athletes is mostly tolerated by the Olympic movement, as the examples of Saudi Arabia and Iran illustrate:

Saudi Arabia’s government blocks women from participating in sport. Many private women’s gyms have been closed down and girls are banned from taking part in sport at school.

The Saudi Olympic committee has ruled that women athletes must shroud their bodies head to toe and be accompanied by male guardians at all times. It has selected only two token women athletes to compete in the London Olympics. Neither woman actually lives in Saudi Arabia. One was born and raised in the US; enjoying sporting opportunities there that are denied to Saudi-resident women. No woman who lives in Saudi Arabia is being allowed to compete in London 2012.

Iran has gender segregation for both sport participants and spectators. It forces women athletes to cover their entire bodies, even if they do not want to. Women competitors are forbidden to have male coaches or to participate in events that involve physical contact with male sports officials.

In many countries, ethnic minorities experience widespread discrimination, neglect and exclusion. They have few sports facilities and racism reduces their chances of Olympic selection. India’s dalits (so-called ‘untouchables’), for example, suffer extreme social deprivation and marginalisation, which means they have little or no hope of developing their sporting talents and securing a placed in India’s team. They are, in effect, Olympic outcasts.

In more than 150 countries, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) athletes have to hide their sexuality to get selected for their country’s Olympic squad; otherwise they risk not only non-selection but also employment discrimination, police harassment and imprisonment (nearly 80 countries still criminalise LGBT people). In the absence of laws against homophobic and transphobic discrimination, victimisation and bias based on sexual orientation and gender identity is routine in most competing nations; not only in sport but in every aspect of life.

This social marginalisation and exclusion means that in many countries women and minorities have almost no chance of representing their country at the Olympics, no matter how talented they are.

The IOC’s failure to ensure that participating nations comply with the Olympic Charter has resulted in an Olympics that is not a level playing field. This inequality should have been remedied before London 2012 and must be remedied before Rio 2016.

The IOC should insist that all competing nations sign a pledge that they will not discriminate in sport on the grounds of gender, ethnicity, religion, political belief, sexual orientation or gender identity. If they refuse to sign, they are violating the Olympic Charter and should be disqualified from participation in the games.

The Olympics ought to be open to everyone, based solely on merit and without discrimination. There should be no divisions or exclusions, with equal opportunities for all competitors, regardless of their background.

Any country that discriminates in sport against women or minorities should be disqualified from the 2016 Olympics.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Tatchell

Director of the human rights advocacy organisation, the Peter Tatchell Foundation.