Athlete Activism Hits Podium in Tokyo Amid New IOC Protest Rules

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Raven “Hulk” Saunders, the U.S. shot putter who captured attention with her purple and neon-green hair and flamboyant face mask that echoed her nickname, became the first athlete to risk IOC sanctions by protesting from the medal podium. While receiving her silver medal, Saunders raised her arms and crossed them into an X shape to represent “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.” It wasn’t the first demonstration of the Games, nor is it likely to be the last.

The Olympic flame was not even lit when athletes started to protest in Tokyo. Olympians on women’s soccer teams from the U.S., Sweden, Chile, Great Britain and New Zealand took a knee for social justice ahead of games that began two days before the Opening Ceremony. On the first weekend of competition, Costa Rican gymnast Luciana Alvarado choreographed a demonstration into her routine. She did not qualify for the final but cleverly planned her presentation to take a knee in front of the cameras.

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The Tokyo Games opened with the IOC slightly relaxing Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which for years has argued that sports had to be “neutral,” barring “political, religious or racial propaganda,” and punishing some athletes severely for their activism. Last October, in an op-ed, IOC president Thomas Bach asked athletes not to engage in political activism during the Games, stating “the Olympic Games are not about politics.” However, a few weeks before the Tokyo Games, he announced the organization would allow demonstrations before competition as long as they are not disruptive. While the IOC’s Rule 50 statement left sanctions unclear, it said it would enable demonstrations on the field, so long as they come before the start of the action and are not on the podium.

The IOC has yet to give its opinion on Saunders’ podium demonstration, but the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee announced that after conducting its own review, it found the silver medalist’s protest “respectful of her competitors” and that it did not violate their rules related to demonstrations.

Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley and the founder of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, thinks the IOC needs to revisit its rules and make more concessions. The OPHR, which was formed in 1967, played a prominent role in the iconic Black Power salute protest by two African-American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. “This concession of saying, ‘We will not punish athletes who take a knee, so long as it’s not on the podium,’ is not a concession, is a co-optation,” Edwards said in a phone interview.

On the eve of the Opening Ceremony, the Muhammad Ali Center released a letter signed by more than 150 athletes, educators and activists asking the IOC to relax its rules further. Among those who signed and supported the document are Edwards, Smith, Carlos and Gwen Berry, the hammer thrower who made headlines in June after turning away from the flag in protest on the podium at the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials. Two summers ago, at the Pan-American Games in Lima, Peru, Berry and U.S. fencer Race Imboden took a knee during their respective medal ceremonies, prompting yearlong probations from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committees.

The five-page letter asked the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) not to sanction athletes for kneeling or raising a fist as Smith and Carlos did in 1968. The IOC acknowledged the receipt of the letter but did not respond.

One of the letter’s signatories, Yannick Kluch, an assistant professor of sports leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, thinks we will see more protests. “Not just because the rules have been relaxed a little bit—because they have not been changed much—but because of what’s going on right now,” he told Sportico.

Athlete activism during the Olympic Games has a long history. “Athletes have always been on the vanguard of those who have been active in terms of the pursuit of justice and freedom,” Edwards said. However, he argues, though athletes were harshly punished for protesting in 1968, “the structural scaffolding” that holds up a broad movement didn’t exist until 2013. “Once Black Lives Matter came about, that came to be the ideological context within which these actions could be interpreted,” he said.

Whether it be the BLM-led protests last summer, spurred by the murder of George Floyd, or #MeToo outcries in the wake of disgraced USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s conviction for criminal sexual conduct, athletes have been standing up with more confidence and conviction than ever, even speaking out against anti-Asian sentiment sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, athlete activism is not limited to the U.S.

The Belarussian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who was expected to compete in the women’s 200-meter event and the 4×400-meter relay, sought police protection at Tokyo’s Haneda airport on Sunday as she was escorted to a flight back to Belarus against her will. Belarussian officials claimed she lacked “team spirit” after complaining on social media about being asked to run in the relay without her consent. Tsimanouskaya asked the IOC for help. She received a humanitarian visa from Poland, where she reportedly plans to seek asylum.

In the past, athletes from different parts of the world have talked about pressure and stood up to human rights abuses in their countries during the Olympic Games. While some were punished, some were spared from IOC’s sanctions. For example, Ethiopian marathon runner and Olympic silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms like Saunders’ podium protest when he crossed the line at the Rio Games in 2016 to oppose the Ethiopian government’s police crackdowns on demonstrations. Lilesa did not receive a formal punishment for his action.

“The International Olympic Committee operates under a regime of selective ethics,” Jules Boykoff, a former U.S. under-23 national team soccer player and now an academic, explained over a phone interview. “It does what it wants when it wants, and consistency doesn’t really matter.”

The IOC has said concessions it has made to Rule 50 are in line with what athletes wanted. The organization appointed its athletes’ commission to study the issue. A survey of more than 3,500 athletes found a majority said it was not appropriate to demonstrate on the podium, the field of play or during ceremonies. However, Kluch questioned the report’s validity, noting in the letter that it did not include information on the racial demographics of the participants.

“I think the IOC’s argument that sports should be neutral is not valid in this context,” he said, “because sports have never been neutral in the first place.”