It’s the hypocrisy that gets Gwen Berry the most.
The International Olympic Committee, the governing body for the Summer and Winter Games, has a museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, and in that museum, the iconic moment of the 1968 Mexico City Games is exhibited, when American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black glove-clad fists on the medal stand to bring attention to human rights injustices.
But 50 years ago, when Smith, the men’s 200M gold medalist, and Carlos, the bronze medal winner in the same event, made their gesture, they were effectively banned from the sport, ostracized by the IOC and their own country.
And now the IOC celebrates them — though it apparently still doesn’t get the message Smith and Carlos were making.
Unless you’re a big fan of track and field, you probably don’t know who Berry is. She knows that. She competes in the weight and hammer throws, not marquee disciplines within the sport. The hammer throw, done outdoors, features a metal ball that’s four kilograms (just under nine pounds) attached to a grip by a steel wire that’s about four feet long. The indoor weight throw has a grip attached to a 20-pound weight with just a couple of chain links in between because you obviously can’t have it sail as far inside.
But Berry is very good at what she does: a member of the 2016 U.S. team at the Rio Olympics, in August 2018 she became the fourth-best in history and the best American ever with a heave of 77.78 meters (255 feet, 2.25 inches) at a meet in Poland. She’s since been bumped down to fifth all time and second on the U.S. list to DeAnna Price.
She’s also the women’s world record-holder in the weight throw, though World Athletics doesn’t officially recognize the indoor event.
Before all of those things, however, Berry is a black woman. She’s a native of St. Louis, Missouri, raised as one of 13 people under one roof. She recognizes now that it was poverty that led to those living conditions, but as a kid she thought it was fun that she was living with her grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins.
“To tell you the truth, I honestly don’t know how I made it,” Berry told Yahoo Sports this week. “When you’re a kid, you don’t understand economic oppression or red-lining or how a system could fail black families. Growing up in St. Louis was hard; it’s still hard. They’re trying to get better, but it’s still a hard place.”
Berry got to sports practices and games thanks to coaches, and in her sophomore year at McCluer High School, she joined the track team.
“I only did it because my high school basketball coaches said it was a way to make us faster and stay in shape, and I did it in high school for three years. In high school I did sprints and jumps, and when I started in college [at Southern Illinois] I did multi-events,” she said. “One day when I was with the shot putters, the coach said he wanted me to try the hammer. At first I was like, ‘Heck no, not at all.’
“He persuaded my high school coach to talk to me, and he said, ‘Gwen, if he thinks you could be good at it, give it a try.’”
She did, thinking it would be a way for her to score points at the Missouri Valley Conference championships, maybe get her to the NCAA national meet. But that wasn’t nearly the extent of it, as the weight and hammer have led to Berry competing all over the world.
“I had no idea it would take me this far,” Berry said.
On Aug.10 last year, Berry got her biggest win to date, claiming gold at the Pan Am Games, the quadrennial event that features athletes from North and South America and the Caribbean. On the podium, as the final strains of the American anthem played, she thrust her right fist into the air.
— Nick Zaccardi (@nzaccardi) August 11, 2019
“It was a heat of the moment reaction; I didn’t think of the consequences when I was on the podium,” Berry said. “When I got off the podium I knew there could be consequences. When you’re growing up and in track and field and you make your first Olympic team, you hear the stories about Tommie Smith and John Carlos, you know there could be consequences, but you never understand why.
“But I didn’t think about it in that moment. In that moment I wanted the black and brown community to know we are here, I’ve been through what you’re going through.”
Berry wasn’t the only American to protest in Peru: fencer Race Imboden, a member of the gold medal-winning team and a white man, kneeled on the podium in protest of social injustice. Berry and Imboden were sanctioned by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
Unknown for years by many, Berry suddenly got messages from all over, to her email and social media, some of them death threats. She estimates she lost about $50,000 in sponsorships, and she was also sanctioned by the IOC, receiving a 12-month probation — the same IOC that last week sent out a statement saying it “condemns racism in the strongest terms.”
The same IOC said earlier this year it would not allow any sort of protest display at the now-postponed Tokyo Olympics, and affirmed that stance on Tuesday. But a day later, with global protests against systemic racism sparked by the death of George Floyd, IOC president Thomas Bach said he’s now willing to listen to an athlete council to explore different ways athletes can show support for causes, though that council has typically gone the way Bach prefers.
For his part, World Athletics head Sebastian Coe supports track and field athletes’ right to protest.
USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland tweeted last week that the organization “stands with those who demand equality and equal treatment,” a statement that of course was met with ridicule and stories from black American athletes detailing how they’re celebrated in the competition arenas but still face racism away from them, no matter how successful they are.
On Monday, in response to the outcry, Hirshland announced the formation of an athlete-led group “to challenge the rules and systems in our own organization that create barriers to progress, including your right to protest.”
Berry rightfully believes that the IOC has “no choice but to explore options.”
“Their sponsors have made statements that they stand with the black community in their rights to fight for justice,” Berry said. “I believe that is a step in the right direction and hopefully something will come from this.”
The same argument applies to the USOPC, which counts Nike, Comcast and United Airlines among its major partners. All of those companies have made public statements this month condemning racism.
In a detailed letter posted to Twitter last week, she also noted the IOC’s hypocrisy in saying it doesn’t want political statements when the Games themselves are political, with taxpayers footing nearly all of the multi-billion dollar bill for their country to host the Olympics.
For a hammer thrower like Berry or fencer like Imboden, medaling at an international sporting event offers the best opportunity they’ll have to make a statement.
Speaking about the IOC, Berry said, “If you want us to be your actors, to put on a show, you can’t want us to do those things and — it’s like a parent, ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ They create a halo effect for sponsors, a lot of stories, a lot of victories, emotions and everything is going to be so beautiful and peaceful, but the image they’re creating is wallpapering over what athletes go through when they come home, or even what they think about when they’re at the Games.
“Why is it that the IOC can say, ‘Keep these things out of the Games’? It’s impossible. It’s impossible to silence the athletes, especially when this is the pinnacle of their career.”
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