International sporting events, such as the Olympics or the World Cup, have long provided athletes and fans alike with a global audience. Over the years, some have taken it upon themselves to use these global events as an opportunity to raise awareness or engage in protests. In 1906, for example, Irish track-and-field gold-medalist Peter O’Conner climbed the Olympic flag pole and raised an Irish flag to protest the fact he was forced to compete under the British flag at the time. In the 1968 Olympics, African American Olympic gold-medalist runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a Black Power salute during the awards ceremony to protest racist laws and demonstrate support for human rights.
These events bring together countries, cultures, and people with different values, laws, and political systems. The potential impact of such a massive and diverse international audience can cause political leaders and sports organizations to place limits on what they view as disruptive speech. Athletes are banned from engaging in political speech at both the Olympics and the World Cup. In 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were stripped of their gold medals as a result of their protest.
Host nations often seek to impose their own laws and values on athletes and fans. In the lead-up to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, German sports journalist Hajo Seppelt was denied a visa to attend, a decision he believed was indicative of a broader issue with censorship in Russia. During the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, team captains were told they would be penalized if they chose to wear armbands with a rainbow flag in support of LGBTQ rights. Same sex relationships are illegal in Qatar. These controversies highlight a tension between national sovereignty and the universality of human rights and raise questions around whether fans should be bound by local laws and values if they conflict with international human rights agreements.