The Olympic movement should soften its position on political protests in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement or risk being viewed as out of touch, sports marketing and talent management experts warn.
Under current rules, athletes that "take a knee" in solidarity with anti-racism protests during the postponed Tokyo Olympic Games next year could face a ban, despite other sporting bodies—including Fifa and NFL—removing sanctions in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the anti-racism marches that it has triggered.
Yesterday, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said consultations between athletes’ groups around the world were under way.
"The IOC executive board supports the initiative of the IOC athletes’ commission to explore different ways for athletes to express support for the principles enshrined in the Olympic charter in a dignified way," Bach said at a news conference.
Rule 50 of the Olympic charter bans political protests during the Games as the IOC positions the movement as being free of political, religious or any other type of interference.
However, the outrage sparked by Floyd’s death and the groundswell of solidarity, including from many high-profile athletes, could force the IOC to allow some forms of peaceful protest.
Simon Oliveira, managing director at Kin Partners, has represented David Beckham, Usain Bolt, Neymar Jr, Lewis Hamilton, Andy Murray and other sports stars.
He told Campaign sister title PRWeek: "This is an avalanche that can’t be controlled.
"Clearly, the strength of feeling, on a global level, has persuaded many leagues, federations, governing bodies and brands associated to sport to change their positioning and make commitments to ensuring all voices are heard and supported, moving forwards.
"The IOC risks appearing out of touch if they continue to pursue a zero-tolerance approach, especially when so many athletes have been empowered to speak out against racism. There is no doubt athletes will continue to display activism around the event, both physically and via social media."
Oliveira believes that more athletes and influential voices will place pressure on the IOC if it is not prepared to change course.
Meanwhile, Calacus managing director David Alexander believes the protests represent a golden opportunity for the Olympic movement to live up to its ideals.
"Clearly, if athletes take the knee en masse, as has been demonstrated by a wide range of other sports in recent days, the IOC disciplinary commission could find themselves particularly busy unless they relax their rules," he said, pointing out that the IOC has left the door open to compromise.
"What greater opportunity to promote the inclusivity of the Olympic movement, its belief in creating a 'better world', than by supporting and collaborating with the campaign to ensure equality for all?"
It appears that pressure for reform could come from within the Olympic family, with the New Zealand Olympic Committee supporting the rights of athletes to speak up.
There has been wide support from athletes across the spectrum. Several Premier League stars have "taken a knee" in training sessions, boxer Anthony Joshua joined protests in Watford and other stars have expressed support via social media.
As Oliveira pointed out, when the IOC announced its latest iteration of rule 50 in January, US football star Megan Rapinoe immediately took to Instagram to declare: "We will not be silenced."
The loudening chorus of protests sparked by Floyd’s death could force the IOC’s hand in allowing athletes to stand in solidarity with the causes that matter to them once the Olympic flame is lit in Tokyo next July.