Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
On Wednesday at the PyeongChang Olympics, American snowboarder Shaun White won his third gold medal (and the 100th gold for the US in the Winter Olympics) amidst news of sexual misconduct allegations against him.
If they are true, they should have disqualified him from ever competing in the first place.
Lena Zawaideh, a woman who played drums in White’s band, accused him in 2016 of offenses including texting her pornography, touching her inappropriately and insisting she “wear sexually revealing clothes.” White admitted sending her text messages but denied other allegations before reportedly reaching a settlement with Zawaideh in 2017. He also claimed that her lawsuit was “bogus.”
At a press conference Wednesday following White’s victory, he said he didn’t think the charges would affect his legacy – and while he has since apologized for doing so, he minimized them as “gossip.” None of the female journalists in the room were called upon to ask questions (though press officials with US Ski & Snowboard are denying allegations that this was deliberate).
The entire episode is a clear example of why the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) policy against sexual misconduct is inadequate.
Athletes who commit offenses such as those of which White has been accused should never be allowed to participate in the Olympics. But instead of banning sexual offenders, the IOC abrogates its responsibility by putting national Olympic committees and sports federations in charge of policing abuse.
Every country that takes part in the games has signed a charter that requires the “rejection of all forms of harassment and abuse, be it physical, professional or sexual.” In November, the IOC launched a toolkit to help organizations develop policies to protect athletes from abuse.
But there are two problems with this approach.
While the IOC is right to concern itself with the safety of Olympics participants, this focus is too narrow. After the 2016 Rio Olympics – during which two boxers were accused of assaulting housekeepers – the Committee updated its rules on ensuring the safety of athletes and others at the games.
There is now a hotline allowing people to report abuse during the sporting event, a reporting procedure for incidents at the games, and a dedicated IOC Safeguarding Officer. That’s all great. But it isn’t enough.
The IOC shouldn’t merely be concerned with ensuring that athletes don’t abuse women at the Olympics. They shouldn’t allow athletes who commit abuse anywhere, at any time, to compete.
That’s because, according to the IOC, “the goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised without discrimination of any kind, in a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”
Putting sexual abusers or harassers on pedestals, however, contributes to a more terrible world. Turning such people into idols suggests that sexual misconduct isn’t such a big deal and that it’s possible to get away with it. That’s an unconscionable message to send to people around the world.
Ultimately, as the organization in charge of the Olympic Games, the IOC should take responsibility for deciding who is in violation of sexual misconduct policies, rather than directing countries and sports leagues to solve the problem. If the IOC sets standards of conduct, then find reasonable evidence that they’ve been violated, they should be the ones to take action to remove that athlete’s privilege of competing.
The IOC should therefore develop a policy disallowing the participation of athletes who are found to have ever committed sexual harassment or abuse.
Any athlete participating in the Olympics should have to sign a disclosure form indicating whether they have ever formally been charged with or accused of abuse, including in a lawsuit or through criminal charges. If the answer is yes, the IOC should investigate immediately to determine the validity of the charges.
If an investigation reveals the accusations are valid, the athlete should be automatically disqualified. Questions such as those about the allegations against White shouldn’t be considered or addressed only after an athlete has won a medal.
In a 2016 statement, the IOC admitted that “research on abuse and harassment outside of sport suggests that sport agencies cannot be complacent about this: there is no good reason to suppose that sport is exempt from the ills of wider society.”
That’s underplaying the IOC’s role, too. By shirking responsibility for ensuring that sexual abusers aren’t allowed to participate in the games, the IOC is creating an arena in which villains can still be held up to the world as heroes.