U.S. Olympic Committee to IOC: 'end prohibition' of protests at Games

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The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee on Thursday took an unprecedented step in support of athletes’ right to protest at the Olympic Games.

The USOPC, in a news release, called on the International Olympic Committee to “end the prohibition of peaceful demonstrations” on global sport’s biggest stage.

It also said it “will not sanction Team USA athletes for respectfully demonstrating in support of racial and social justice for all human beings” – even if the demonstrations run afoul of the IOC’s anti-protest rules.

The USOPC, which just last year reprimanded athletes for podium protests, stood behind those IOC rules for decades. The notorious Rule 50 states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” In January, the IOC published “guidelines” to clarify that raising a fist or kneeling during a medal ceremony were among the forms of protest outlawed.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter run at the 1968 Olympic Games, engage in a victory stand protest against unfair treatment of blacks in the United States. With heads lowered and black-gloved fists raised in the black power salute, they refuse to recognize the American flag and national anthem. Australian Peter Norman is the silver medalist.
The USOPC, after decades of opposing podium protests, such as John Carlos' and Tommie Smith's in 1968, has come out in support of peaceful demonstrations at the Olympics. (Getty Images)

But in 2020, both the IOC and USOPC have faced growing pressure from athletes to modify their restrictions. The USOPC’s Athletes’ Advisory Committee called on the IOC to abolish Rule 50 in June. The IOC’s Athletes’ Commission is leading a review of the rule, but sources in the Olympic world are skeptical the review will lead to any meaningful change. On Thursday, IOC AC chair Kirsty Coventry acknowledged the USOPC’s statement, and said it would be “taken into consideration,” but seemed to downplay the gravity of it.

The USOPC, however, is the most powerful national Olympic committee in the world, and its new public stance could push IOC leaders to bring their rules more in line with international human rights standards.

‘Human rights are not political’

Thursday’s statement is an extension of recommendations made by a recently established racial and social justice council within the USOPC.

“The Council’s recommendation is built on the foundation that athletes should have the right to peacefully protest and demonstrate against racial and social injustices and to promote human dignity through global sport,” the USOPC said in its release.

“It calls for the IOC and [International Paralympic Committee] to update guidelines to allow for peaceful actions that specifically advocate for human rights and racial and social justice, and distinguishes those acts from to-be-defined ‘divisive demonstrations’ — including, but not limited to, currently prohibited acts of hate speech, racist propaganda, political statements and discrimination.”

The council, in submitting its recommendations to USOPC leadership, wrote that it wanted “to make unmistakably clear that human rights are not political.”

That line, between politics and human rights, has been blurred over the years, sometimes intentionally by those in power to suppress marginalized voices and keep existing power structures in place. But there are internationally accepted definitions, including in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights, that could be adopted in some form by the IOC to separate human rights advocacy from “divisive demonstrations.”

The USOPC council recommended that the IOC establish an independent body to oversee any issues related to that distinction. It urged the IOC to “clearly distinguish between human rights/social justice protests and instances of hate speech, racist propaganda, and discriminatory remarks aimed at eliminating the rights and dignity of historically marginalized and minoritized populations.”

It also called on the IOC to adopt a new principle that would codify its commitment “to respecting all internationally recognized human rights” and “strive[ing] to promote the protection of these rights.”

The USOPC council’s recommendations

The council’s full recommendations are laid out in a four-page document finalized over the past week, and after a months-long process. The seven core recommendations are:

“The silencing of athletes during the Games is in stark contrast to the importance of recognizing participants in the Games as humans first and athletes second,” the council wrote. “Prohibiting athletes to freely express their views during the Games, particularly those from historically underrepresented and minoritized groups, contributes to the dehumanization of athletes that is at odds with key Olympic and Paralympic values.”

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