IOC approves continued ban on protests at Olympics

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TOKYO, JAPAN - APRIL 21: A shadow is cast as the sun sets behind the Olympic Rings on April 21, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. The Japanese government is expected to impose a third state of emergency in Tokyo soon amid an increase in cases of Covid-19 coronavirus in what experts have said is the fourth wave of the virus to hit the country. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has stated that any declaration would not affect the hosting of the Olympics which are now only three months away. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
The Olympic rings in Tokyo. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

The International Olympic Committee on Wednesday approved a continued ban on protests and demonstrations at the Olympic Games, including during medal ceremonies and competitions.

IOC president Thomas Bach told reporters that the IOC executive board "unanimously approved" a recommendation of its own Athletes' Commission, which initiated a 10-month review of the IOC's protest rules amid a widespread racial justice movement in the United States.

Kirsty Coventry, the chairwoman of the Athletes' Commission, revealed the recommendation at a virtual news conference on Wednesday. The Athletes' Commission compiled a 42-page report outlining its stance, which it said was based on consultations and a survey of 3,547 athletes from around the world.

It called for the IOC to "increase opportunities for athletes' expression during the Games," but to "preserve the podium, field of play and official ceremonies" as protest-free.

The IOC has not decided how athletes would be punished for protests. The Athletes' Commission recommended that the IOC's legal team "clarify, in due course, the range of sanctions that would be imposed for a breach of the rule."

It also recommended that the IOC rewrite the rule to clarify it. But the gist will be the same. Coventry was asked: "So essentially, nothing really changes for athletes as far as field of play, ceremonies, podiums are concerned ... is that correct?"

"Yes," she said, "that's correct."

The IOC survey

In the survey, the IOC asked both current and former athletes about the appropriateness of "demonstrat[ing] or express[ing] their individual views on political issues and other topics" in various Olympic arenas.

A slight majority of athletes (42% vs. 37%) said doing so was appropriate in the media. A stronger majority said it was not appropriate to do so on podiums (67%, vs. 16% appropriate) and the "field of play" (70% vs. 14%).

The IOC's interpretation of those results was that "only around 1 in 7 deem it appropriate to demonstrate or express their views on the podium [and] field of play." Neither Coventry nor a written summary of findings mentioned the word "political."

IOC Rule 50 survey results. (Publicis Sport & Entertainment/IOC)
IOC Rule 50 survey results. (Publicis Sport & Entertainment/IOC)

U.S. athletes comprised 7% of those surveyed, second only to China's 14%. According to published results, 91% of Chinese athletes said it was not appropriate "to demonstrate or to express their individual views on political issues and other topics on the podium," whereas just 53% of American athletes said it was not appropriate.

(Publicis Sport & Entertainment/IOC)
(Publicis Sport & Entertainment/IOC)

The average age of respondents was 33. The average active Olympian is much younger.

IOC stance contradicts that of U.S. athletes, USOPC

The IOC's Rule 50, which has banned such demonstrations for decades, has come under scrutiny in recent years. "We shouldn’t be silenced," Gwen Berry, a U.S. hammer thrower, told Yahoo Sports last year. The rule, she said, "definitely is a form of control.”

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd last year, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee convened a racial and social justice council. In December, at the council's recommendation, the USOPC called on the IOC to end its prohibition of protests at the Games. In March, the USOPC outlined its own set of detailed rules that allow athletes to demonstrate in support of racial and social justice at Olympic trials.

A wide range of American athletes had also called on the IOC to abolish Rule 50, and allow for human rights protests at the Games. A number of current and former U.S. Olympians – including John Carlos, who famously raised his fist on a podium at the 1968 Games – expressed these views to the Athletes' Commission on a conference call last year.

“The IOC and [International Paralympic Committee] cannot continue on the path of punishing or removing athletes who speak up for what they believe in," a USOPC athlete council wrote in a letter last year, "especially when those beliefs exemplify the goals of Olympism."

The USOPC has since begun listening to its athletes, especially Black athletes who felt targeted by anti-protest rules. But USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland acknowledged earlier this month: "We also recognize [IOC leaders] operate in a global environment. And to expect 206 countries to have similar circumstances would be a tall order."

The online survey was open for 31 days in December and January. Some athlete advocates have criticized it for leading questions, including its use of the word "political." The USOPC's protest guidelines, published last month, distinguished between political demonstrations and those in support of social justice.

Here's a look at some of the other survey results:

More IOC Rule 50 survey results

The Tokyo Olympic Games begin July 23.

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