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An Athlete's Perspective: Human Rights at the Winter Olympics

21/02/2014 15:11 GMT | Updated 21/04/2014 10:59 BST

Lost among much of the recent debate over human rights at the Sochi Winter Olympics, and Russia's 'anti-gay law', has been the fine line that athletes at Sochi have to tread between the strict restrictions placed upon 'political comment' by the International Olympic Committee, and remaining true to their own moral convictions.

The days preceding the opening of the Sochi games were characterised by sharp disagreements between many western governments and the new IOC President, Thomas Bach. In response to the refusal of prominent leaders such as Barack Obama and David Cameron to attend the games, and Mr Obama's decision to include several openly gay former athletes in the American delegation, Mr Bach issued a strongly worded criticism of such 'ostentatious' political statements. 'Have the courage', Mr Bach counselled western leaders, 'to address your disagreements in a peaceful direct political dialogue and not on the backs of the athletes'.

But what of the personal convictions of the athletes Mr Bach purports to protect? Olympic organisers recently refused permission for competitors to wear stickers in memory of the Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke, who died in a training accident in 2012. The decision to outlaw these stickers, which could in no reasonable sense be considered to carry a 'political' message, unmasks the IOC as a hypocritical and archaic body out of touch with modern realities. While the IOC continues to cloak itself in the ideals of amateurism, fair play, and mutual respect, the reality is far different. The Olympics has indisputably become a commercial and political entity, raking in billions of dollars in sponsorship from many of the world's largest corporations. Furthermore, the IOC has built an increasingly close relationship with the United Nations in recent years, with Mr Bach himself drawing parallels between the objectives of the two organisations in a speech to the UN General Assembly in November last year. While these notions are laudable, the blatant contradictions between the IOC's own activities and the draconian restrictions it imposes on its own athletes is particularly worrying.

The Olympic movement represents all the people of the world, with their many distinct cultures and national identities, and it would admittedly be improper for the IOC to play an active role in encouraging any political viewpoint. The point is, simply, that neither should the IOC, or any other major sporting body, prevent athletes from expressing strongly held individual beliefs - political or otherwise. In August 2013, in a prelude to the debates that have shrouded the Sochi Games, the Swedish High Jumper, Emma Green Tregaro, competing at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Moscow, was reprimanded for painting her nails in the colours of the rainbow in a statement of solidarity with homosexual Russians. Green Tregaro was told that her actions breached IAAF regulations, which stipulate that athletes may not engage in any political or commercial statements; and she was instructed to repaint her nails prior to the next round of competition or risk disqualification. Such overbearing actions - inhibiting the considered and reasoned right of expression for an athlete with a clear sense of her own personal convictions - are fundamentally wrong.

The truth is that sport and politics cannot be separated - they are inextricably linked from the foundations upward. Athletes compete, after all, in the colours of their home nation. They stand on the podium, victorious, and often teary-eyed, as the flag of their nation is raised to the echoes of their national anthem. This exemplifies politics at its most basic level. Representing one's country is a privilege and a responsibility that transcends the wearing of a branded tracksuit and singing the national anthem. Athletes also represent the values with which they have been raised; but above all they represent themselves: what they believe and what they stand for as individuals. Many Olympians are, of course, inclined to focus entirely on their own performances, free from distractions of any sort; and they certainly should not be negatively judged for doing so. However, athletes who have strongly held political views deserve to be allowed to express them free from any external restriction. It is, fundamentally, an issue of individual rights, which the IOC should not suppress.

Sport has immense power to do good. It brings people together across divides of language, race, sexuality, gender and culture, and has enriched and inspired countless millions. Within the sporting world the IOC has more power and influence than any other organisation, but its current restriction of freedom of expression among the movement's own ambassadors - the athletes - has the potential to do significant harm. At the very heart of the Olympic Charter is an unequivocal respect for other human beings and a repudiation of discrimination in any form. It is high time the IOC found the courage to live up to these convictions.