The International Olympic Committee Ethics Commission
This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 41 spring 2000
For many people, it used to be that the Olympic Games were less a global sporting event than an opportunity for the people of the world to come together and celebrate ideals of beauty and nobility – made manifest by the athletes who compete. Indeed, I believe that most people continue to support these ideals, fervently wishing them to be true – despite the evidence of recent experience.
The public perception is that for every example of courage and perseverance, we are now likely to find examples of duplicity, corruption and the desire to win at any cost – whether it is to self and others. Of course, this perception does a grave disservice to the vast majority of athletes and officials who work so hard to realise the ideals on which the movement was founded. That is the problem with the current standing of the movement's leadership – it indiscriminately tarnishes the reputation of all; casting a pall over the movement as a whole.
Mind you, we should also be wary of glossing the historical record in search of some especially virtuous period in Olympic history. Unfortunately, ethical challenges have been a part of the Games since ancient times. As Australian writer, Tony Perrottet, observed in the June/July issue of Civilization: The magazine of the Library of Congress:
Nothing could kill the popularity of these events – certainly not scandal. Charges of corruption at the games can be traced back to 388 BC when one Eupolus of Thessaly bribed three Olympian boxers to throw their fights against him. Judges used the fines from such infractions to erect statues of Zeus inscribed with didactic poems contending, as summarised by the second-century-AD author Pausanias, 'that you win at the Olympics with the speed of your feet and the strength of your body, not with money'.
It might seem that the more things change, the more they stany the same! However, the point of Perrottot's research is to show that although corrupt behaviour is an old fact of life – it was always recognised as a threat to the integrity of the Games and never something to be tolerated.
This is why the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its bureaucracy need to adopt a new and positive response to the ethical challenges before it. The first step has been to establish an Independent Ethics Commission to oversee the reform process. In the first instance, the role of the IOC Ethics Commission has been to establish a framework to investigate and resolve alleged breaches of the IOC's Code of Ethics and the Olympic Charter. The risk is that the IOC will stop at this – seriously misunderstanding the nature of the challenge that it faces and, in doing so, underestimating the task before it.
Specifically, there is a risk that the IOC will fall into the trap of thinking that its primary task is to fix 'bad ethics' rather than work to promote 'good ethics' across the movement as a whole. This motivation to fix 'bad ethics' is fed by the desire to prevent scandal and avoid the practical effects flowing from censure by the United States Congress – a possibility that will be realised if the OIC does not get its house in order. The IOC's response to the recent ethical crises within its own ranks has been to establish the IOC Ethics Commission as a quasi-judicial body armed with its own investigators and a very distinguished and competent panel of legal luminaries drawn from around the world.
It is important to understand that much of what the world has rightly condemned was not the product of deliberate dishonesty and greed. To the disbelief of some, many of the worst practices of the past were done in the open and with a seeming indifference to censure. Exceptions to the spirit of ideals of the Olympic movement gradually come to be considered normal practice – apparently sanctioned by uncritical and common usage.
How else can we explain the extraordinary transparency surrounding some of the behaviour which has been the source of so much recent trouble – in which the evidence of attempts to 'buy votes' was recorded in letters written and signed on official letterhead, filed and then released to the media?
So, while monitoring adherence to the IOC's various codes is important, the more essential task is to initiate measures to reform the underlying culture of the Olympic movement. This should be done with a light hand. Instead of merely threatening the use of a 'big stick', the IOC should seek to harness the idealism which still lies at the heart of the movement and appeal to people's sense of what is good within themselves and the movement as a whole. If this is not done as a matter of priority, then the Olympic Charter will eventually come to be seen as an empty promise and a hollow creed.
With this in mind, each National Olympic committee (NOC) should be invited to consult with its 'stakeholders' (athletes, officials, sponsors, suppliers, supporters and so on) to measure their assessment of the gap between the Olympic ideal and the reality they experience when dealing with the movement. That is, the IOC should begin by listening.
This should be followed by a period of reflection and planning in which each NOC formulates a plan to close – or at least narrow – the gap between the ideal and the real. This is not to suggest that the IOC should aim for a homogenous culture across the movement. On the contrary, national differences in character should be respected and encouraged – providing that each part of the movement has a 'family resemblance' to the other parts; based on a common core of ethical values and principles.
In fact, the core values and principles of the IOC should be the equivalent of the movement's 'DNA' – providing the essential blueprint for how it acts – right across the board! It is time that the Olympic movement paid serious attention to the notion of there being an Olympic 'family'. Members of a family are all individuals, marked by their own particular character. However, their relationship to each other is usually evident in their shared demeanour. It is this 'resemblance' which needs to be encouraged by the IOC – a resemblance based on adherence to a core framework of shared values and principles rather than merely one's organic connection to a global sporting extravaganza.
Much of this discussion has focussed on the activities of the IOC's most senior members and officials. There are, of course, significant issues to be addressed in many of the sports. The most important of these are well known – the use of performance-enhancing drugs; the relationship between some coaches and athletes under their care; the balance between technological superiority and the raw talent of athletes; the ability of sporting administrators to act competently and free from conflicts of interest; and so on.
For all their importance, it is difficult to see these issues being addressed in the absence of a clear example being set by those who lead the movement. That is why it is critical that the IOC and its bureaucracy set aside its innate conservatism, allied to a deep-seated inclination to protect its own – in favour of the positive program to promote the ideals on which the movement was founded.
All of this has the most profound implications for the movement and those who lead it. The IOC needs to go well beyond establishing a credible regime for monitoring and enforcing compliance with its codes. It needs to resist the temptation to deal with its recent woes as a challenge to engage in reputation management. It needs to recruit local and international champions who can come to grips with the real challenge of reforming the movement's ethics from the top down and from the inside out.
So what might the Olympic movement's ethical framework look like? One example of such a document, based on the Olympic Charter, is on Page 15 of this issue of Living Ethics . It is not an official document and has no standing in the movement, rather, it is an attempt to capture the ideals that gave rise to the Olympic movement and since then, inspired its best.
The Games being held in Australia this year offer an ideal opportunity for there to be a symbolic 'rebirth' of the Olympic movement – ready for a new millennium. What we need is an eye to the future based on a rededication of the movement to those noble ideals which speak to even the most cynical heart.
Let us hope that the leaders of the Olympic movement grasp the opportunity to champion form over substance, depth over the gloss of appearances, nobility of spirit over raw spectacle, honour before power and integrity before success.