The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Tokyo Organizing Committee had to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympics due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s global outbreak. While reorganizing for the Olympics in 2021, the decisionmakers must consider several critical operational, and ethical issues. One issue relating to athletes’ participation in the changed set of participants has significant functional, ethical, behavioural, and psychological impacts. Further, it impacts implementing the fundamental principles of Olympism, or the Olympic Movement, like solidarity and non-discrimination.
The decision is related to whether IOC should allow participants to compete, in spite of facing a ban in 2020 due to previous use of prohibited performance-enhancing drugs but who would complete the prohibition before the rescheduled Olympics trials. Preventing these athletes from participation may bring legal complexity. On the other hand, allowing these athletes to participate may create dissatisfaction and anger in the other so-called “clean” athletes who were not facing any ban in 2020. This “clean” group of athletes would consider the other groups opportunity as a “lucky break.” The decision favoring the currently banned athletes’ participation in the Olympics trials would reduce the possibility of the “clean” athletes joining the main event to win medals. They would be dissatisfied or even angry, which may substantially affect the team-level relationship and country-level performance. The organizing committee has to make a decision that may affect many athletes’ careers, as well as the overall Olympic Movement.
The case aims to address two learning objectives. First, the case enables students to understand the ethical dilemma present in a “right versus right” decision situation. The students can recognize the possibility of “double-edged sword” in such a situation where the decisionmaker would be in a dilemma concerning the justice to either of the affected groups, whatever decision he/she makes.
Second, at a more conceptual level, the case illustrates the philosophical difference between deontological ethics and utilitarian ethics. One possible decision is to allow the previously banned athletes, who have completed their punishment term, to be legally eligible to participate. It represents the deontological ethics position, i.e., whether the decision is ethically right under a series of rules, irrespective of their consequences. On the other hand, there could be a decision not to allow this group to participate so that the other “clean” athletes would not be at a disadvantage in terms of selection. It represents utilitarian ethics, based on the consequences of the decisions to produce the greatest “good” for the highest number of people affected. It would help the students to understand the strengths and weaknesses of both the philosophical positions.
On March 24, 2020, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, representing the IOC and Tokyo Organizing Committee respectively, jointly announced that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would be “rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021” (Tokyo Olympics, 2020) due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 30, 2020, the IOC and the Tokyo Organizing Committee, or Tokyo 2020, announced the revised dates of the rescheduled Games between July 23 and August 8, 2021. Since then, Thomas Bach, IOC Coordination Commission Chair, John Coates, Tokyo Organizing Committee or Tokyo 2020 President, Mori Yoshiro, Tokyo 2020 CEO, Muto Toshiro, and IOC Olympic Games Executive Director Christophe Dubi have had numerous meetings to discuss the long list of contingencies that have arisen due to postponement. The issues addressed in these meetings range from managing the substantial additional costs, venue fitness, refund of already-sold tickets to spectators, changes in suppliers’ agreements, and, most importantly, the athletes’ operational and psychological issues.
One important decision related to athletes was the consequence of the changing composition of the participants. Such changes would be possible due to multiple reasons like aging and the ability of athletes to maintain their fitness level. While most of these factors could not be controlled, there was one major area where the stakeholders might raise ethical questions. This was related to the decision to provide an opportunity for a particular group of athletes to participate. This group of athletes was a part of a larger group facing a ban in 2020 due to previous use of prohibited performance-enhancing drugs, at the time of the scheduled Olympics trials. But this specific group would complete the banned period before the rescheduled Olympics trials. Thus, this group would get an unexpected opportunity to participate in the Olympics trials, which would not be the case had the Olympics occurred as per the planned schedule. Preventing these athletes from participating in the process of the rescheduled trials may bring legal complexity. Allowing these athletes to participate may create dissatisfaction and anger for the other so-called “clean” athletes. These “clean” athletes were those who were not facing any ban due to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. This “clean” group of athletes might consider the opportunity available to the other group as a “lucky break.” They might be dissatisfied or even angry, as the decision favoring the participation of the other group in the Olympics trials would reduce their possibility of joining the main event through the trials and winning medals in the Olympics.
The decision also had its implications beyond the individual level. On the one hand, a decision to prevent the participation of the other group may undermine some of the fundamental principles of Olympism or the Olympic Movement, like solidarity and non-discrimination. On the other hand, a decision favoring the participation of the other group may create virtual boundaries among the two groups of contestants in the team events or even the whole team representing a country. The committee members discussed all possible aspects related to this decision before reaching any conclusions.
The modern Olympic Games or Olympics is considered the most important sporting event on the earth. Following the formation of the IOC in 1894, the games began in 1896 in Athens. Since then, athletes from different countries participate every four years. The Olympics is inspired by the ancient Olympic Games, which used to be held in Olympia between the 8th century BC and 4th century AD in the honor of the Greek god Zeus. Although the Olympics is synonymous with the summer Olympics, other versions of the Olympics endorsed by the IOC are also popular, like the Winter Olympics (for snow and ice sports), Paralympics (for athletes with disabilities), Youth Olympics (for the age group of 14–18 years), world games (for sports not contested in the main Olympics), Deaflympics (for deaf athletes), and Special Olympics (for children and adults of different intellectual abilities). A total of 11,238 athletes from 207 countries competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics in 306 various sports events (International Olympics Association, 2016). These numbers indicate a substantial enhancement of interest over the years, starting from the Athens Olympics in 1896, where 241 athletes from 14 countries competed in 43 events (IOA, 1896).
The Olympics is based on the fundamental principle of Olympism or the Olympic Movement, which seeks to create “a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles” (IOA, 2021) (see Table 1 for details). The Olympic Movement is driven and directed by three major constituents – the IOC, the International Sports Federations (IFs), and the National Olympic Committees (NOCs). In line with the principle of Olympism, the IOC sets one of its goals “to protect clean athletes and the integrity of sport, by leading the fight against doping, and by taking action against all forms of manipulation of competitions and related corruption” (IOA, 2021) (see Table 2 for details). The IOC’s major responsibilities are selecting the host city, guiding the smooth operation using its experience and knowledge from past events, implementing anti-doping rules and codes, and negotiating sponsorships and media rights (IOA, 2021). In all, 73 IFs govern single or multiple sports at the global level, to promote, support, establish, and enforce the rules of the respective sports (IOA, 2021). Two hundred and six NOCs have the responsibility to develop, promote, and protect the Olympic Movement in their respective countries (IOA, 2021).
|Table 1. Fundamental Principles of Olympism|
Source: Olympic Charter, International Olympic Committee. pp. 11–12
|Table 2. Mission and Role of IOC|
Source: Olympic Charter, International Olympic Committee. pp. 16–17
Use of Performance-Enhancing Drugs at the Olympics
The history of the Olympics was scattered with news of the use of performance-enhancing drugs by athletes. The fight against the use of performance-enhancing drugs obtained its tailwind after the formation of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in 1999. The initiative was triggered by the identification of the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs by the police in the 1998 Tour de France, one of cycling’s grand tours. The first World Conference to prevent doping in sports was held in Lausanne, Switzerland, on February 2-4, 1999 (WADA, 2021). The list of banned performance-enhancing drugs and processes is long, but the more common ones are anabolic-androgenic steroids like Testosterone, Nandrolone, Furosemide, Stanozolol, Norandrosterone, and Oxandrolone. The history of the Olympics indicates that the identification of these chemicals pre- or post-events had banned participants from many countries over the years. The use of these chemicals was found in multiple sports, but more frequently in athletics and weight-lifting events (WADA, 2020).
Tokyo Olympics 2020
The 2020 Olympics was scheduled to be held in Tokyo between July 24 and August 9, 2020. Tokyo was selected as the host city during the 125th IOC session in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2013, through a voting process of IOC members. Tokyo was awarded the hosting rights in a three-city contest between Tokyo, Istanbul, and Madrid. Tokyo won the election with 42-26-26 votes. Incidentally, IOC president Thomas Bach was elected during the same session in another voting process to succeed Jacques Rogge. Winning the election enabled Tokyo to be the only city in Asia to host the Olympics twice, having previously hosted the 1964 Olympics. According to the organizers of the event, the Games of the XXXII Olympiad of the modern era in Tokyo would be “the most innovative ever organized and will rest on three fundamental principles to transform the world: striving for your personal best (achieving your personal best); accepting one another (unity in diversity); and passing on a legacy for the future (connecting to tomorrow)” (IOA, 2020).
In January 2020, concerns were raised about the feasibility of conducting the Olympics due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Such a situation is not new to the Olympic committee. During the 2016 Rio Olympics, a mosquito-borne disease caused by the Zika virus raised concerns. It forced the Rio organizers to take strict preventive actions like checking all the locations near the Olympics venues and the Olympic village multiple times every day to ensure no presence of stagnant water, that allow mosquitoes to breed, among other measures (BBC News, 2016). But preventing the SARS-Cov-2 virus from spreading is posing a much tougher challenge as it is an infectious disease that can be transmitted during the presence of an affected person near unaffected persons (The Guardian, 2020). Another related problem is that sometimes it takes a substantially long period (a few days) for symptoms like fever and difficulty breathing to appear (Nature Medicine, 2020). Qualifying matches scheduled to be played in China, the initial epicenter of the outbreak, were relocated to other countries in January and February 2020 (The Japan Times Sports, 2020). All the qualifying matches scheduled from March 2020 onwards were postponed due to the spread of the pandemic globally. The situation affected the normal processes of qualifying in multiple sports, like archery, baseball, cycling, and judo. Also, mandatory doping tests were being severely restricted since early 2020 as health officials worldwide were occupied with combating the pandemic situation. The number of affected people, affected countries, and new confirmed cases in the COVID-19 pandemic were increasing rapidly. More than 80,300 people were infected by the COVID-19 pandemic in 69 countries as of March 1, 2020 (John Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Centre, 2020). On March 3, 2020, the IOC and Tokyo Organizing Committee indicated that the Games would proceed as per schedule. On March 23, three countries, Canada, Australia, and Great Britain indicated that they would withdraw from the Games (CNBC, 2020). On that day, more than 378,100 people were infected in 159 countries (John Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Centre, 2020). On the next day, IOC president Thomas Bach and Japanese prime minister Abe Shinzo, representing IOC and Tokyo Organizing Committee respectively, announced that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would be “rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021” (IOA, 2020). Although several Olympics had been cancelled during World Wars I and II, including the 1940 Olympics, which was originally scheduled to occur in Tokyo, this is the first time in the history of the modern Olympics that the event was postponed to a later date (Los Angeles Times, 2020). On March 30, 2020, IOC and the Tokyo Organizing Committee announced the revised dates of the rescheduled games as being July 23 to August 8, 2021.
Issued of Participation for Banned Athletes
One of the major ethical issues moving around in the athletic community is the participation of the some of the banned athletes during 2020 who would get a lifeline from the postponement. As per rules of WADA, Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) Head Brett Clothier indicated, the doping ban is designed to prevent athletes from competing for a period of time, and not based on specific events. Therefore, stopping athletes whose bans expire later this year from competing in 2021 would lead to legal and ethical complications.
It’s an unfortunate situation but one that is very clear under the legal framework. The ban is based on time and not tied to particular events. (Reuters, 2020)
In similar voices, WADA President Witold Banka said,
While an athlete cannot choose when he or she would like to be ineligible, an (anti-doping organization) cannot either. This is entirely consistent with principles of natural justice and other areas of the law as it relates to sports or even criminal activity. When an offender has done with the time, the sentence is considered to be served.
Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, commented,
This is something we will need to look at. I know it’s something the Athletics Integrity Unit, and all the other agencies out there in concert with our sports will need to think about. And that will be another issue in an overflowing inbox at the moment.
It would also, Clothier pointed out, create a larger punishment for those who would be banned before and during the revised scheduled 2020 Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Such a person would not be able to participate in two consecutive Olympics, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in 2021, and the 2024 Paris Olympics since WADA normally bans an athlete for four years (Chicago Sun-Times, 2020). WADA had explained that the IOC had tried on several occasions to introduce rules that would exclude the athletes from the subsequent Olympics who were proven to take performance enhancement drugs intentionally. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) had never allowed such rule to be implemented (IOA, 2020).
This situation brings opportunities to several athletes who otherwise would not be able to participate in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Turkish runner Gamze Bulut, for example, was stripped of her silver medal from the 2012 London Olympics because of employing illegal performance enhancement methods. She was given a four-year ban beginning in 2016 and expiring on May 28, 2020. As per the Olympics’ regular schedule, the 27-year-old athlete would not have sufficient time to participate in the qualifying rounds to get an opportunity to participate in the Olympics. But now she would get an unexpected opportunity (US News, 2020). Other notable cases are of Polish weightlifter Tomasz Bernard Zielinski and his brother Adrian Zielinski, who were banned after positive doping tests in the 2016 Rio Olympics for using Nandrolone (BBC News, 2016). They were given a four-year ban. Now they have an opportunity to participate in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in 2021, subject to selection (Yahoo Sports, 2016). Irish boxer Michael O’Reilly, caught in a random doping test during the Rio Olympics, would get a similar opportunity (Daily Mail online, 2016). AIU estimates that there are about 40 of the 200 or so currently banned sportspersons, whose period of ban would be completed before the revised qualifying rounds of the respective areas of sports would occur (US News, 2020). These athletes would get an unexpected opportunity from the Olympic postponement.
This situation did not make many other athletes happy. Brendan Boyce, an Irish race walker, who has already qualified in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics for participating for the third consecutive Olympics, has indicated his position:
I wouldn’t be too happy now if I would have lost an opportunity to participate (in the Olympics) because of an anomaly like what’s going on at the minute.
He has protested on social media, although he did not proceed to file any formal complaint (Yahoo Sports, 2020).
Angry Lily Partridge, British long-distance runner, who had not yet qualified for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, spoke severely on the entire system:
I don’t believe in second chances with regards to serious doping offenses unless you provide serious assistance to anti-doping authorities. Even then, I don’t believe you should have the privilege of being able to compete and earn money from the sport. (Yahoo Sports, 2020)
In support, Boyce has indicated the difference in the effect of doping ban in different cultures:
Having a doping ban in Ireland is much more than serving time away from your sport. It’s crippling for your life because you’re seen as a criminal. It’s a form of fraud. In other countries, you see some athletes on doping bans, just training normally and they’re just waiting to come back, and nobody in that country seems to be too bothered. (NBC Sports, 2020)
The Way Forward
Many questions in this regard remain under a cloud of uncertainty. If the Olympics would occur as per its revised schedule, the grievance of the athletes has to be addressed. Otherwise, the world would doubt one of the fundamental principles of Olympism or Olympic Movement as detailed in the Olympic Charter:
The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity, and fair play. The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. (IOA, 2021)
Thomas Bach, John Coates, Mori Yoshiro, Muto Toshiro, and Christophe Dubi know that their decision will affect many athletes’ careers. As they ponder the decision they are aware of two options, both of which are ethically justified from a specific point of view. And they know that their decision will have long-term consequences on the overall Olympic Movement.
- What dilemmas are faced by the decision-makers when a right-versus-right decision is to be made?
- What are the processes and organizational structures that help to perform “the greatest show on earth” once every four years?
- (a) What arguments support the decision to include athletes who would complete their banned period before the selection process of the rescheduled Olympics? (b) What arguments support the decision not to include the athletes who would complete their banned period before the selection process of the rescheduled Olympics?
- Is there any other way the dilemma can be solved, apart from the options indicated in the case?
1. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The disease was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province, and has since spread globally, resulting in a pandemic.
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