India Does Itself (and the Olympics) a Favor

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The Indian Olympic Association did itself and the international sports community a favor when it amended its constitution yesterday to comply with International Olympic Committee ethics guidelines. The decision came a day after newly elected IOC President Thomas Bach threatened India with expulsion from the upcoming Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, for failing to comply with "rules of good governance."

The new rules prohibit anyone with a criminal conviction from running for election in the Indian association and come after almost a year of tough negotiations with the IOC. In December 2012, the IOC suspended the Indian group after the election of Lalit Bhanot to secretary-general despite his corruption conviction related to the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. Since then, the Indian Olympic Association has attempted to maintain a position of sovereignty, declaring that its primary goal was to abide by state and national law, even though they are at odds with the international sports body's guidelines.

In the end, India made the right decision, both for its current athletic prospects and for its future place on the international stage. For a country that has been trying to prove to the Western world that it can transition from emerging market to economic superpower, it's remarkable how stubborn its officials have been in complying with international norms. India has historically sought to maintain its cultural identity since gaining independence from the U.K. in 1947, but it has slowly begun to open itself up to help modernize a nation with a burgeoning middle class and shifting demographics. It's therefore utterly baffling that a country trying to shake its image as an endlessly corrupt oligarchy would fight so fervently and so publicly to continue allowing tainted officials to run its sports. At least now, the Olympic association's decision shows that India is willing to compromise, given sufficient international pressure.

The IOC also comes away from the decision as a winner. It was a notch on Bach's belt, his first major victory since his election as president in May and proof of the power of his strong-arm tactics. In addition, expelling India would have turned away a billion potential fans at a time when Olympic viewership is booming and expected to keep growing, a difficult pace to maintain while shunning 150 million television-equipped households.

India's concession also benefits the IOC by allowing it to avoid the uncomfortable implications of expelling a country for corruption while allowing others with glaring human rights violations to continue membership -- namely Saudi Arabia and Russia, the host country of the 2014 Games. Had India been expelled, it would have been the first time a country had been thrown out of the Olympics since South Africa under apartheid. That decision in 1964 amounted to a major statement that an international body wasn't willing to recognize the legitimacy of a country whose policies violated both Olympic laws and the laws of humanity. Shouldn't the same standards be held to participant nations almost a half-century later?

Instead, the IOC has sent mixed signals on human rights. Just today, officials issued a reminder to athletes not to protest Russia's draconian anti-gay laws in the interest of avoiding "political controversies," despite that such laws clearly violate the Olympic Charter's anti-discrimination provision. No mention of the controversial decision to allow a country with a revival of Soviet-level authoritarianism to continue hosting the games. At least one international figure has taken a stand: German President Joachim Gauck announced this weekend that he would be boycotting Sochi due to human-rights violations and political crackdowns.

Furthermore, it seems hypocritical to zero in on India when Saudi Arabia has directly violated the anti-discrimination clause for decades. It wasn't until last year that Saudi Arabia, one of the most oppressive countries on earth for women, allowed female athletes to compete in the Olympics, after loud calls for an IOC ban by human-rights groups. As Human Rights Watch notes, Saudi women and girls are still widely barred from taking part in sports despite their major breakthrough at the 2012 Olympics in London.

It only seems fair that the IOC should uphold its own values and be consistent when enforcing its charter. It took a step in the right direction in persuading India to address its corruption issues, and now it's time for it to use its enormous leverage to take a stand for social change. As Bach himself said, "It's about the principles."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net