Those protesting the International Olympic Committee’s decision to ban political statements by participating athletes make several familiar arguments, all of them bad. The principal one is that since politics already saturates the Olympics—the parade of national flags, the contest between cities vying to host—the ban is incoherent and hypocritical, and the attempted interdiction of political speech is itself a political act.
No it isn’t. Declaring a politics-free zone is simply an assertion that one kind of activity is appropriate in a particular space and not another. Athletes, like anyone else, may be interested in political issues such as climate change, income inequality or minority rights. That’s why the committee is careful to say there will be no ban on political statements “during press conferences and interviews,” “at team meetings” and “on digital or traditional media.” But “on the field of play,” “during Olympic medal ceremonies” and “during the Opening, Closing, and other official Ceremonies,” words and gestures with a political message are outlawed.
Such restrictions are no more political than a rule preventing nurses from lobbying for higher wages during an operation or jurors from voicing their opinions in the middle of a trial. The point isn’t to suppress political views, but to recognize and honor the primary obligations taken on by those who enter a particular arena of practice. What Olympic athletes are forbidden to say at carefully specified moments, they are perfectly free to say in ordinary settings, when the severe requirements of disciplinary integrity don’t apply.
The IOC muddies the waters when it proclaims the importance of keeping “the Olympic Village and the podium neutral.” The word “neutral” suggests a space where contending political views are present and an administrative body resolves to favor none of them. Neutrality as a value comes into play only when the landscape is already politically configured. The landscape of Olympic competition isn’t. The committee’s effort is a prophylactic one: Politics might have infected almost everything about the Olympics, but the games themselves are a sacred zone that must be protected.
Why? Because if executing a backdoor play or breaking a world record in a relay solicits our admiration as an act affirming freedom or women’s equality or indigenous rights, what the IOC calls “sport and its values” will have been subordinated to a partisan agenda. The Olympics will be nothing more than a large scale political messaging center. Maybe that’s what the hundreds of millions of fans want, but I don’t think so.
Mr. Fish is a visiting professor at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and author of “The First: How to Think About Hate Speech, Campus Speech, Religious Speech, Fake News, Post-Truth and Donald Trump.”