Sports and Religion: A New Challenge?

Players of Italy (left) and Egypt (right) shake hands before the start of women's beach volleyball match at Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo: AFP)
Players of Italy (left) and Egypt (right) shake hands before the start of women's beach volleyball match at Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo: AFP)

Annie Sugier, president of the League of International Women’s Law, calls upon the Organizing Committee of the Paris Olympics 2024 to strictly apply the letter of Olympic Charter. She is ably supported by several eminent personalities and associations in her tribune to the “World”. 

The interference of religion in sports is undoubtedly a current issue that is embarrassing both for public authorities as well as for sports leaders. A revealing example: The actions of “civil disobedience” in a Grenoble public swimming pool by some fifteen burkini-clad women, claiming the right to swim there in ultra-modest bathing suits. This was formally forbidden by the bylaws.

Reacting to this situation, the environmental mayor of Grenoble calls on the President of the Republic to decide: “Does the government want public swimming pools to be, like schools, sanctuaries protected from religions, and thus with an attitude contrary to the present position of national institutions such as the Observatory of Laicity (secularism) and the Defender of Rights?”

Similarly, the reporters of the Parliamentary mission on “public services, faced with radicalization,” mention a proposal inspired by the French Law forbidding religious symbols in public schools: “…there might be therein a line of approach even if the possibilities for regulating religious behavior (even ostensible) seem limited in privatized sports structures (…)”.

The terms of the debate are thus set: On the one hand, an official vision of Laicity (a form of secularism with narrow vision), on the other, the promotion of an educational value of sport allowing more strict rules. 

Reasserting the boundaries of laicity (secularism), guides have been developed to help supervisors manage such conflicts. The UFOLEP (the first multi-sport federation in France) published “the C.O.D.E. of sport and laicity“, followed by the Ministry of Sports, with its “Laicity and religion in sports“.

Impotence dominates

From the start, the Ministry of Sports states: “The ambition of this guide is to demonstrate that the expression of religion and laicity (secularism) are not, in themselves, incompatible in the field of sports“. The UFOLEP is even more specific; it quotes Pierre Tournemire, an administrator of the Ligue de l’Enseignement (League of Education): “Our society is multicultural sustainably. Identity claims or religious practices must be legitimately expressed in the public space without constraint or suspicion, only on the conditions specified for public space”.

These guides propose a simple message: Laicity (secularism) applies only to professionals in the status of public officials. Where practicing religious people are concerned, their freedom to show their convictions and beliefs must be protected on the condition that public order is not affected. The authors immediately add that the idea of public order must be dealt with carefully, since “it might hide a potential discrimination for a religious purpose”. This caveat ignores the fact that the religious motivation itself masks sexist discrimination.

In short, there’s a serious lack of any political analysis of the societal functions of sport, and what dominates is impotence. Should we really accept that?

Nicolas Cadène, General Rapporteur of the above mentioned Observatory of Laicity in an intervention annexed to the Sports Ministry’s guide, reasserts the limits of Laicity (secularism), but proposes an interesting solution: “Here, in reality, it is not laicity (secularism) that is concerned.  Forbidding proselytism stems from the values of sport, recalled in particular in Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter as well as in Law 4 of the FIFA, concerning football”.

This view is consonant with the Belgian association, the Brussels Wallonie Panathlon, the armed branch of the Belgian Olympic Movement for ethics in sport. On the initiative of its President, Philippe Houssiaux, three symposia were organised with representatives of sports, religions and laicity (secularism), which resulted in the declaration: “Sport, the Spirit of Humanity” where primary element is the following: “Whereas each person engaging in sport possesses their own rich values and philosophies of life or of belonging, he/she accepts that once they cross the threshold or enter the sporting arena, they will agree, with no exceptions, to adopt and conform to the rules of sport in the widest sense, without promoting their philosophical convictions in an ostentatious or intolerant fashion, in any way whatsoever.”

With this same concern in mind, the League of Women’s International Rights, supported by over 100 organisations and more than 360 personalities, appealed to the Organising Committee of the 2024 Paris Games (COJO) demanding the application of the Olympic Charter and punishments for failures to comply.  Among the offenders are Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of which submit their women athletes to strict sexual apartheid (participation only in such disciplines judged to be “Quranic”, bodies covered from head to toe and “women only” sports). Because these Games are mirrors of our societies, Paris must be exemplary. Let us recall that over 50 metropolises in the world upheld our candidacy saying that: “Paris has the necessary assets and the will to give a new vigour to Olympic values”. If Paris refuses to apply the Olympic Charter to sex-based discrimination in the same way that it has in the past applied it to racial discrimination, then its inconsistency, far from being a protection against discrimination will become an egregious example of it. 

Also, sports must be governed by the same rule for all. Only thus will sports remain a space for learning the respect of the one Olympic rule.

The tribune was first published in French in the newspaper Le Monde. Given below is the link to the tribune and in it the first 380 signatories of the Paris 2024 petition

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