Thursday, February 10, 2022

Mandatory Attendance: Why is North Korea the only country suspended from the Olympics for not participating?

Map of North and South Korea, located on a single peninsula, with Japan across a sea straight to the southeast of South Korea, and North Korea sharing land borders with China and a small strip of Russia.
Location of North Korea and neighboring countries. Map by Johannes Barre & Patrick Mannion (CC BY-SA) (source)
North Korea Banned from 2022 Winter Olympics

As readers of our updated Parade of Nations feature know, this year's Winter Olympics in Beijing are missing one of the usual teams: North Korea. In fact, North Korea wasn't even allowed to attend. 

That's because last year the country's Olympic committee chose not to attend the Summer Olympics in Tokyo - out of what it insisted were COVID-19 concerns - and as punishment, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspended it from participation for all of 2022.*

Wait...what? There's a punishment for not attending the Olympics? And that punishment is...not being allowed to attend the Olympics? Then why has this never happened before? If those are the questions you're asking yourself, you're not alone.

We had even more questions, but we couldn't find the answers anywhere in news reporting, official websites, or even Wikipedia - so we went deeper. To find out what we learned, keep reading for the whole story, or skip to the bottom for a bullet-point summary.

*Note that the IOC didn't entirely ban North Korean athletes from joining the games - it offered to let them attend on a case-by-case basis as independent athletes, just as it's done for athletes from countries that have been suspended for other reasons in the past. However, no North Korean athletes ended up registering for the Beijing 2022 games, and statements from the country's government left open the possibility that its team wouldn't have attended anyway due to the continuing COVID pandemic.

Unprecedented Action

North Korea's suspension for skipping the Olympics seems unusual for a good reason: It hasn't happened before. Roughly 100 different countries famously boycotted various Olympics in the 1970s and 1980s, all without any formal punishment. The US even led the biggest-ever Olympic boycott, then went on to host the very next Summer Olympics. Even without boycotts, plenty of countries skip the Winter Olympics every time, and a few seem to miss an occasional Summer games too.

None of the news reporting we've seen addresses that elephant in the room, with everyone seeming to just unquestioningly cite the IOC's press release explaining the punishment. And it is right there in the official rulebook of the IOC: "...each NOC [national Olympic committee] is obliged to participate in the Games of the Olympiad by sending athletes". 

And yet, no one but Olympic sports officials seems to have noticed the requirement until now. Even our searches of archived news stories didn't come up with any reporting acknowledging that such a rule exists. On the other hand, we did find an old New York Times article asserting exactly the opposite: "No nation is obliged to participate in the Olympics". So, what changed?

When did the Olympics start requiring every country to attend?

Given that mass boycotts of the Olympics were all the rage 40 years, we started to think that the rule against skipping out must be more recent. And after some time comparing the many different revisions of the Olympic Charter - a sort of constitution that seems to get amended every time the IOC Commission meets - we found, sure enough, that the rule makes its first appearance in the December 1999 edition.

As it turns out, the obligation for every country's team to send athletes was added as part of a major 1999 overhaul to the IOC rules, mostly focused on ending corruption within the organization. In 1998, the IOC had been hit by a sensational scandal, with committee members accused of taking extravagant bribes in exchange for letting Salt Lake City, USA host the upcoming 2002 Winter Olympics

To save its reputation, the IOC convened a semi-independent commission of IOC members, industry professionals, athletes, sports experts, and politicians - including big names like Henry Kissinger, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and the chairmen of NBC Sports and Xerox - to recommend whatever improvements to IOC rules and operations they could come up with. And though rooting out corruption was the top priority, it was also a rare opportunity to fix any other flaws the system.

Among the dozens of changes recommended by the commission (and soon voted into effect by the IOC), the "obliged to attend" clause was quietly slipped in among rules about governing principles, member ethics, and logistical concerns. We say "quietly" because, though it's stated clearly in the commission's list of recommendations, we couldn't find any public documents discussing it further. It also seems to have been left completely unmentioned not only in news reporting about the reforms, but even in the assembly's own press releases about that particular batch of recommendations.

We could speculate that the commission and the IOC were trying to keep a controversial rule out of the spotlight - but it actually comes off more as if they just thought it was a no-brainer addition to be taken for granted. Four of the 93 voting IOC members did abstain from the vote on the section of reforms that include the attendance rule. But unlike many other items on the reform agenda, exactly zero members actually voted against it.

Why make a rule requiring every country to attend the Olympics?

Map of which countries boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, USSR. Map of the world marks boycotting countries in blue, including the US and Canada, a handful of Latin American countries, various African and Middle Eastern countries, West Germany and Norway in Europe, and much of East and Southeast Asia, including China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Indonesia.
In the biggest ever Olympic boycott, over 60 countries skipped the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, USSR. Boycotting countries shown in blue. (Click here for map author and license information.)
In the 1980s, a lot of people thought the Olympics were seriously in danger of losing their international importance, . The trend of mass boycotts reached its peak in that decade, with the US leading over 60 countries in skipping the 1980 Moscow games - the first ever Olympics in Eastern Europe - as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan
With less than 150 total Olympic nations eligible for the games at that time, the boycott meant the number of participating countries was cut almost in half.

Four years later, the Soviet Union and over a dozen allies staged their own boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in the US, and it may have been only a series of intense and controversial diplomatic efforts that averted another major boycott at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Not seeming to accomplish much - except to crush hopes and careers of athletes caught in the middle - the biggest Olympic boycotts have mostly been remembered in a negative light, and were always opposed by the IOC as an insult and threat to the spirit of the games.

Though the 1999 documents don't explain why the "obliged to attend" rule was added to the Charter, an academic expert on the IOC assured us by email that the purpose was to prevent any future Olympic boycotts. A report from the International Society of Olympic Historians, though only mentioning the rule in passing, also calls it "somewhat of an 'anti-boycott' clause". Punishing an absence from one year's Olympics with a ban from the next games was potentially a workable tactic to deter countries from staging boycotts - even if they officially denied that the boycott was for political reasons, as the Soviet Union did in 1984.

And there's another layer to it too: The location of the attendance rule within the Olympic Charter, plus the general thrust of some of the press releases on the reforms, suggest that it might have been considered a way to protect each national Olympic committee (NOC) - from its own country's politics. NOCs, though they do each represent a country at the games, are supposed to be independent of decisions by that country's government. Given that, it seems reasonable that having a rule requiring attendance could help the NOC push back against any political pressure for a boycott, especially when there are clear consequences to breaking that rule.

Why was the rule against boycotting the Olympics not made until 1999?

The thing is, the age of mass Olympic boycotts had already passed by 1999: Besides the Winter Olympics (we'll get to that), only a handful of countries had missed the Olympics since 1988, and as far as we can tell, even those weren't trying to boycott. In fact, the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, USA were attended by every single country with a recognized NOC - supposedly for the first time ever (though we weren't able to find records of any NOCs missing the 1960 Olympics in Rome, and the earliest modern Olympic games didn't involve formal NOCs at all).
It turns out that the IOC actually debated making a mandatory attendance rule all the way back in 1984, just after the Soviet-led boycott of the LA Summer Games, and just as talk was emerging of a possible second Soviet-aligned boycott at Seoul 1988. At a special meeting in December 1984, IOC members voted against banning the teams of countries who boycotted, though they did pass a rule banning those countries' sports judges and other officials from attendance (and reducing their share of journalists covering the games). 
The sides in that debate apparently fell largely along the same Cold War political lines as the boycotts themselves. By that time the US Olympic Committee was in favor of full bans for boycotting countries - a change of tune after its own even bigger boycott four years earlier. Meanwhile, IOC members from the Soviet Union reportedly abstained from the vote to ban sports officials, though they were fairly quiet on the issue overall. On the other hand, according to the New York Times, some IOC members from Soviet ally countries were said to support punishing boycotters, maybe so they wouldn't be pressured to skip the Seoul 1988 Olympics.

The topic came up again in 1988, after North Korea and Cuba announced they were boycotting the upcoming games in South Korea, even though no larger Soviet-aligned boycott materialized (a handful of other countries also didn't come, but it's not clear whether any of them intended it as a boycott). The IOC had designated a committee to study the possibility of new penalties for boycotts, with the organization's president supporting the proposal at least for countries that backed out after already accepting their official invitation. The topic was on the agenda for the next full session of the IOC, but for unclear reasons, nothing seems to have come out of it.
It seems likely that the timing of the eventual rule change, a decade later, was a combination of two factors. First, it was probably easier to ban boycotts after the dust of the old ones had had time to settle, public opinion had converged against them, and officials who had led them were waning in influence. And second, the full overhaul of the Charter initiated after the 1998 scandal was an unusually good opportunity to catch up with any backlogged wishlist of changes, since dozens of changes were pushed through all at once instead of individually.
It also might not be a coincidence that the rule change came just a year and a half before the retirement of Juan Antonio Samaranch, the legendary (though controversial) IOC president who had led the organization ever since 1980. Samaranch was a fierce critic of national Olympic boycotts, and many credit him with navigating the games out of the boycott era
We haven't found documentation of exactly role Samaranch had in finally getting the rule through, but the Olympic scholar we talked to, who worked under Samaranch in the 1980s, assured us that the president was definitely on a mission to make it happen. And the working group that came up with the official recommendation was also led by a "Samaranch ally", fencing gold medalist Thomas Bach (now the IOC president). Either way, the final prohibition of boycotts adds some poetic closure to the Samaranch era of the Olympics.
And of course, the fact that there were no Olympic boycotts in the 1990s doesn't mean the threat was gone forever. Though it didn't succeed, there was a high-profile movement to boycott the current Winter Olympics in Beijing, just as there was for the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008. Interestingly, the fact that national teams could be punished for any new boycott at the summer games doesn't ever seem to make it into public debates or news coverage. But maybe that could change...

So why is North Korea the only country in 22 years to be suspended for not attending the Olympics? 

Map of which countries attended the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China and which didn't. World map marks attending countries in seafoam green, including practically all of Europe and North America, and most of South America and Asia, but excluding most of Africa, Central America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands, and much of the Middle East, Southeast, and Central Asia.
Less than half of the world's countries are attending the 2022 Winter Olympics, and attendance is still considered high. (Click here for map source and license information.)
As we mentioned above, every Winter Olympics are missing lots of the world's Olympic nations - less than half are attending this year's games in Beijing, and that counts as high attendance. So why do none of them get suspended by the IOC? Well, the answer lies in the specifics of how the rule is phrased: "...each NOC is obliged to participate in the Games of the Olympiad by sending athletes." 

Notice the phrase "Games of the Olympiad", a fancy name for the Olympics. Except it's actually more specific than that: If you check earlier in the Olympic Charter, the "Games of the Olympiad" is clearly defined to mean only the Summer Olympics, with "Olympiad" meaning the traditional four-year period between each edition of the Summer Olympics. So the rule apparently doesn't apply to the Winter Olympics - an interpretation confirmed by the scholar we talked to.*
What about countries that haven't made it to the Summer Olympics? As it turns out, that's happened very few times since 1999. Another rule apparently added in 1999 guaranteed each country up to six athlete spots in the games, so qualifying to compete in each sport is no longer an obstacle. The growth of financial assistance from the IOC to member NOCs has probably also helped prevent dropouts. By the time of the Sydney 2000 Olympics, nearly-full attendance was already the norm.
Afghanistan was the only recognized NOC missing from Sydney, having been suspended by the IOC after its Taliban government banned women's participation in sports. The Athens 2004 games saw every country register athletes, though under unclear circumstances, Djibouti's didn't actually compete. Brunei was the only country absent from the Beijing 2008 games, after it missed the deadline to register its two athletes. 
Moving on, the London 2012 Olympics apparently achieved full attendance, while the Rio 2016 Olympics featured every country except Kuwait, which was suspended for government interference in the operations of its NOC. In the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (delayed to 2021), the only country absent besides North Korea was Russia, whose athletes were banned from officially representing their country after Russian sports officials were found to be helping their athletes cheat using performance-enhancing drugs.

Obviously the mandatory attendance rule can't apply to countries that the IOC has already banned from attending. So besides North Korea, the only imaginable candidates for punishment have been Djibouti and Brunei, but neither of those seems like a great example of a country's NOC choosing not to attend. So although it may be surprising that the rule slipped under the public's radar until now, it does seem to make sense that no other country would have been punished under it before.
*The Australian Olympic Committee, in its official argument against a political boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, contends that the rule does apply "by convention" to the Winter Olympics too, as far as "those NOCs which practice snow and ice sports" are concerned. But without any such rule being written in the Charter, without any agreed-upon definition of which countries it applies to, and with many countries skipping or rejoining the Winter Olympics every year, it seems very unlikely that any such "convention" would be enforceable, if it even really exists. The Australian committee does have a rule in its own constitution against skipping the Winter Olympics - but that doesn't mean other countries have to.

Ulterior Motives: Were COVID precautions the real reason for North Korea's ban from the Olympics?

Despite it being pretty clear that the rules technically require attendance to every Summer Olympics, some have argued that banning a country for wanting to avoid COVID exposure was a little too harsh. North Korea does have unusually strict COVID prevention measures, and has been keeping its borders almost entirely closed (at least until very recently) in an effort to keep its number of cases supposedly at zero
But could there be more to it than that? The 2020 Olympics that North Korea skipped were hosted by Japan, which you might say is one of its most hated enemies. And North Korea has been known to boycott over geopolitical disputes in the past, as it did in 1988 when the games were held in South Korea - though it said it would have participated if it had been named co-host (a nod to the official story that the North and South Korean governments are technically rival representatives of just one united Korea). If the IOC thought the North Korean NOC was trying to unofficially boycott these games, that would seem to help justify such a decisive punishment.
But the argument that North Korea skipped Tokyo 2020 just because it hates Japan seems like a stretch. Around the same time as its Olympic cancellation, its team also pulled out of the FIFA World Cup soccer qualifiers, which had nothing to do with Japan. And the North Korean team happily participated in the Japan-hosted 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. Of course that doesn't rule out the possibility that some political purpose played into North Korea's decision to walk out of Tokyo 2020 - but the COVID justification seems likely enough as the biggest reason.
On the other hand, from the IOC's end there's an obvious benefit to enforcing the attendance rule on North Korea: It sent a message to any future Olympic boycotters that there could be real consequences (though the IOC is often accused of not enforcing its rules consistently). For its part, North Korea blamed the IOC's decision on the machinations of "hostile forces" - likely meant as an accusation of secret US involvement.

Summary: Why is North Korea the only country suspended from the Olympics for not attending? 

North Korea seems to be the first country ever banned from one Olympics for skipping another, after it refused to send athletes to the Tokyo 2020 summer games. Here's why:
  • The rule requiring attendance at the Olympics wasn't made until 1999, long after the boycotts of the 1970s and 1980s (though it was proposed at least as early as 1984).
  • The rule is phrased to imply that the Winter Olympics don't count.
  • Only one or two other countries have been absent at any Summer Olympics since 1999 (without already being banned for other reasons).
  • Neither of those countries seems to have intentionally avoided attending.
  • Though some speculate that North Korea's hatred for Japan was the real motivation for its absence and suspension, evidence better supports COVID concerns as the main reason.