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November 27, 2018

The Olympic Charter

Teaching Legal Docs:  The Olympic Charter

In the world of international sports competitions and international sports law, one document stands out as a “constitution,” providing a blueprint for organizational structure and governing all aspects of play. The Olympic Charter is the compilation of fundamental principles, rules, and bylaws that establish and regulate the International Olympic Committee (IOC), its subordinate International Sports Federations, and the National Olympic Committees; as well as each Olympic Games and individual athletes competing in the Games. Collectively, everything governed by the Olympic Charter is known as the Olympic Movement. From how many members shall comprise the IOC, to the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games, to whether Olympic athletes may display political memorabilia on their uniforms, the Olympic Charter covers it. Here, Teaching Legal Docs will explore the Olympic Charter’s history and composition as a primary source document.

A Dynamic History

What is now known as the Olympic Charter was first codified in 1908, fourteen years after the modern Olympic Games it governs were first established in Paris on June 23, 1894. According to the IOC, it was written by then-IOC president and founder of the modern Olympic Movement and French aristocrat, Pierre de Coubertin, who may have written a version as early as 1898. When it was first published, the Charter was titled the “Annuaire du Comité International Olympique,” or “International Olympic Committee Yearbook.” A yearbook? In fact, what is now recognized as the Olympic Charter was published, updated, altered, and reissued frequently (not annually, but often, and generally prior to an Olympiad) throughout the twentieth century. At times it served as a yearbook, documenting the Olympic Movement’s history and Courbetin’s legacy, including his photo, as much as it organized and governed the Games.
The formal title of “Olympic Charter” was adopted in 1978. In calling the Olympic Charter a “charter,” the IOC acknowledged a distinctive aspect of its origins: a “charter” is a grant from a legislative power that creates and defines an institution. The Olympic Charter is conferred from the Swiss Federal Council, the executive legislative body of the government of Switzerland. Lausanne, Switzerland has served as the home of the IOC since 1915.

The Olympic Charter Document

The current Olympic Charter, in force since 2015, is 110 pages long. It includes a Preamble and seven Fundamental Principles, and the main body of the document is organized into six chapters. This particular format and organization has been used since 2011.

The Preamble

The history of the Olympic Movement and Courbetin’s legacy that was a main component of earlier Olympic Charters is now contained in the Charter’s Preamble. The Preamble was adopted in 2001. It is one paragraph, and it differs from the typical design of a preamble, as it emphasizes origins, rather than articulating general or abstract goals:

Modern Olympism was conceived by Pierre de Coubertin, on whose initiative the International Athletic Congress of Paris was held in June 1894. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) constituted itself on 23 June 1894. The first Olympic Games (Games of the Olympiad) of modern times were celebrated in Athens, Greece, in 1896. In 1914, the Olympic flag presented by Pierre de Coubertin at the Paris Congress was adopted. It includes the five interlaced rings, which represent the union of the five continents and the meeting of athletes from throughout the world at the Olympic Games. The first Olympic Winter Games were celebrated in Chamonix, France, in 1924.

Fundamental Principles of Olympism

The seven Fundamental Principles of Olympism are not rules for playing any particular Olympic game, but define the spirit and philosophy that are meant to be behind the entire Olympic Movement. The number of Fundamental Principles has fluctuated from Charter to Charter. There have been seven Principles since 2011. At times in the Charter’s history, there were as few as six Fundamental Principles, and as many as nine. The Fundamental Principles place sports in the broader context of culture, community, and humanity, and even declare participation in sports a human right. The Fundamental Principles of Olympism are:

  1. Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism 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.
  2. The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.
  3. The Olympic Movement is the concerted, organised, universal and permanent action, carried out under the supreme authority of the IOC, of all individuals and entities who are inspired by the values of Olympism. It covers the five continents. It reaches its peak with the bringing together of the world’s athletes at the great sports festival, the Olympic Games. Its symbol is five interlaced rings
  4. The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.
  5. Recognising that sport occurs within the framework of society, sports organisations within the Olympic Movement shall have the rights and obligations of autonomy, which include freely establishing and controlling the rules of sport, determining the structure and governance of their organisations, enjoying the right of elections free from any outside influence and the responsibility for ensuring that principles of good governance be applied.
  6. The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, color, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
  7. Belonging to the Olympic Movement requires compliance with the Olympic Charter and recognition by the IOC.

The Fundamental Principles are often cited in the media, particularly in stories that involve activists protesting activities in an Olympics host country. Principle 6, for example, was cited often leading up to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, to protest anti-gay legislation that was in effect in the host country.

Rules and By-Laws

The bulk of the Olympic Charter is the body of rules and bye-laws contained in six chapters. Each chapter discusses one aspect of the Olympic Movement:

  1. The Olympic Movement
  2. International Olympic Committee
  3. International Sports Federations
  4. National Olympic Committees
  5. The Olympic Games
  6. Sanctions, Disciplinary Procedures and Dispute Resolution

Each chapter is separated into rules, for a total of sixty-one rules in the document. Particular rules might have subsequent by-laws, and they are printed immediately following the rules. The rules are individually numbered across all six chapters, so that readers might easily reference an exact regulation. 
The Olympic Charter rules are cited to answer just about any question that someone—athlete, coach, or organizer—might have about the Movement, particularly the Games. Certain rules tend to be cited in the media quite often. Rule 41, for example, the “citizenship requirement rule,” states that athletes competing in the Olympics must be a “national” of the country they represent in the competition.  Rule 50 states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues, or other areas,” and is often cited in discussions about whether athletes may protest or make certain statements during competitions.

Governing the Games

Beyond the format, organization, and content of the Olympic Charter, it is important to consider the legal status of the document. The Olympic Charter has been recognized as “the supreme corpus of rules” that governs the Olympic Movement. The recognition comes formally from the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the body that resolves international sports-related disputes, but also informally among governmental and legal entities around the world. As a result, organizations such as the United Nations work closely with the IOC to enforce the Olympic rules and share the Fundamental Principles of Olympism with developing countries in the hope that sport, as a human right, will contribute to the development of a larger rule of law culture.