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Home | Wire | Sochi Day 2: The 'Right' to Sport

Sochi Day 2: The 'Right' to Sport


The Olympic Charter which supposedly guides the spirit of the Games makes the following claim:

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 Sochi Olympics have come under fire because of the status of homosexuals within Russia and several government policies seen as promoting an anti-gay culture. Google even decided to enter the fray by making its doodle on the event’s opening day a rainbow coloured flag with the above quote prominently displayed.

I don’t want to wade into the debate about Russia’s laws have affected the spirit of Games, but I do want to question the troubling opening line of this quote from its Charter: “The practice of sport is a human right.”

To be honest, I had never considered that someone might think that “sport” qualifies as a human right. In fact, the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists over 40 separate human rights, but not one concerning sport. (Although it covers many similar “rights”, like in article 24: “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.”)

The problem with all these rights is two-fold. The first is that they are not “rights” founded on any rigorous analysis, but rather represent preferences. (The preferences of the United Nations, incidentally.) Perhaps the more dangerous problem is that the past century has seen such an inflation of human rights that each one’s value has diminished significantly. Indeed, as Philipp Bagus laments, “This inflation of the human rights concept is like a cancer in the flesh of a capitalistic society.” The more “rights” we gain, the less each one means to us.

Of Murray Rothbard’s great contributions, one of the greatest is his defence of human rights as being nothing more than property rights. To the extent that property can only accrue to humans, and that a person has ownership of his own body, all supposed human rights are more accurately (and extensively) grouped under the heading of property rights.

Chapter 15 of Rothbard’s “The Ethics of Liberty” resolves the conflicts that arise from identifying rights as specific in the action or person delivering them, and not innate in the property used to create the action. In particular, Rothbard uses a well-known example of the conflict that the “right to free speech” creates when pitted against the “right to not incite a public disturbance” by falsely yelling “fire!” in a crowded theatre. The only relevant right is in the owner of the theatre, and only he can dictate how his property is used (or must not be used) accordingly.

One goal of the Olympic games is to promote peace. The very Charter of the Olympics creates conflict by assigning a right to “sport” where no such right exists. Since the Olympic Charter specifically singles out “discrimination of any kind” as something which is against the Olympic Spirit, I cannot help but wonder why men and women are discriminated against by not being allowed to compete against each other in the vast majority of sports, why certain drugs or training techniques are discriminated against by being grounds for disqualifying an athlete, or why professional athletes are discriminated against by not being allowed to compete (but not uniformly so).

Rather than a right to sport without discrimination, it rather seems like the Olympic Charter puts forward a preference for sport, with some discriminations.

(Originally posted at Mises Canada.)

David Howden is Chair of the Department of Business and Economics and professor of economics at St. Louis University's Madrid Campus, and Academic Vice President of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada.

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