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The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s athlete council, in partnership with legendary sprinter John Carlos, has called on the International Olympic Committee to abolish its anti-protest rule.
The demand, formally presented to the IOC for the first time in a letter on Saturday, was made by U.S. Olympians on a Thursday conference call with the IOC Athletes’ Commission.
The Olympians targeted the infamous Rule 50, which has suppressed athletes’ voices and demonstrations at the Olympics for decades – perhaps most famously in 1968, when Carlos and Tommie Smith raised gloved fists during a medal ceremony and were subsequently expelled from the Games.
The rule reads: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” The IOC reiterated it in January, and clarified that it outlawed “hand gesture[s] or kneeling.”
Saturday’s letter from U.S. Olympians calls for the IOC to “develop a new policy in direct collaboration with independent, worldwide athlete representatives that protects athletes’ freedom of expression at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
“Athletes will no longer be silenced,” it states.
An Olympic athlete-led movement
The letter, and Thursday’s call – which Carlos led off with a powerful sermon – follow weeks of behind-the-scenes discussion and debate in the Olympic world. In the month after George Floyd’s death, with protests of racial injustice and police brutality sweeping the globe, hundreds of athletes have pressured both the IOC and USOPC to change.
Both organizations have been slow to acknowledge the movement, but after town halls on race earlier this month, the USOPC announced the formation of an athlete-led group “to challenge the rules and systems in our own organization that create barriers to progress, including [athletes’] right to protest.”
“We will also advocate for change globally,” USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland promised in a letter.
The IOC followed days later by announcing it would support its own Athletes’ Commission in “explor[ing] different ways of how Olympic athletes can express their support for the principles enshrined in the Olympic Charter.” The IOC has long claimed that the Games themselves “are a very powerful global demonstration against racism and for inclusivity.” And yet when athletes have attempted to demonstrate against racism and for inclusivity, the IOC has punished them.
Saturday’s letter highlights that contradiction.
“We are now at a crossroads,” it reads, in part. “The IOC and [International Paralympic Committee] cannot continue on the path of punishing or removing athletes who speak up for what they believe in, especially when those beliefs exemplify the goals of Olympism. Instead, sports administrators must begin the responsible task of transparent collaboration with athletes and athlete groups (including independent athlete groups) to reshape the future of athlete expression at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
“Freedom of expression is recognized as a fundamental human right by the United Nations because it is essential to societal and individual well-being. Aligning with such principles will allow athletes to give the world hope beyond sport – hope that voices matter and are a powerful tool for change. The Olympic and Paralympic movement simultaneously honors athletes like John Carlos and Tommie Smith, displaying them in museums and praising their Olympic values, while prohibiting current athletes from following in their footsteps. Carlos and Smith risked everything to stand for human rights and what they believed in, and they continue to inspire generation after generation to do the same. It is time for the Olympic and Paralympic movement to honor their bravery rather than denounce their actions.”
John Carlos’ involvement
Thursday’s call marked the beginning of what the IOC is calling a “consultation process” with athletes around the world. Kikkan Randall, an American cross-country skier and member of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, facilitated the meeting. The USOPC Athletes’ Advisory Council invited a half-dozen Black athletes who’d spoken passionately and eloquently at internal town halls to express their views to the IOC commission.
In the days prior to the call, Moushaumi Robinson, a 2004 Olympian and USOPC AAC leader, connected with Carlos. “Dr. Carlos, you have got to be on this call,” Robinson told him. “You’re the reason that we’re here.” Carlos navigated a busy schedule and joined his fellow Olympians. He told an abbreviated version of his story – of the oppression and ostracism by the Olympic movement – then connected it to the present day.
“He coupled what’s happening now, not just with Black Americans, but with the right to be able to speak about social injustice towards any human,” Robinson told Yahoo Sports. “And how that moment in ‘68 was for this time right now.”
“Honestly, after Dr. Carlos spoke, we could’ve gotten off the phone, because it was so spot-on,” Robinson said. “But we connected after the call. He told me, ‘Young lady, listening to you young people on the call, I just wanted to burst, I was so excited, and so happy.’”
What the Olympians want, and why
The call lasted around an hour. “It was a little bit different than calls we’ve had before with the IOC’s Athlete Commission,” Han Xiao, the USOPC AAC chair, told Yahoo Sports. “Usually it’s a very controlled environment. There’s a lot of presentation, there’s a lot of pre-prepared material coming from them. On this particular call, we were given a lot of room to speak, and our athletes were allowed to convey their thoughts. ... That was a welcome change.”
The question, now, is what comes next. There’s skepticism among some Olympic athletes that the IOC Athletes’ Commission, which has been tabbed by executives to facilitate these discussions, will listen not to athletes but to those executives. And the IOC’s “track record” on athlete-led progressivism, as Xiao says, “is not great.”
The issue isn’t a simple one. There are points of debate, mostly logistical: “How do you [protest] respectfully?” Xiao says. “How do you do it without taking away from other athletes’ moments? How do you [design a rule] without opening it up to all sorts of hate speech, and actual political statements, and things like that?”
And in the past, Xiao says, as recently as last year, “there were still a few athletes who were very vocally against podium protests.”
But racial justice, many feel, isn’t political. Kneeling to protest injustice isn’t a political statement. It’s a statement on human rights that the IOC purports to support.
Yet the IOC singled out kneeling as taboo. Robinson, who is Black, takes issue with that, because it “isolates, defines, discriminates against Black Americans.”
“Rules should not discriminate. Rules should be equal and equitable,” she says. “When you write kneeling in the legislation, you are defining the Black Americans’ condition, that it is unacceptable to speak on it once you reach that podium. And to me, no matter how you spin it, if the language stays written that way, and they don’t allow for an athlete to have their voice, the only thing I see that language saying is that you don’t want us there.”
U.S. Olympians and the AAC will work on proposals to navigate the murky waters. But they don’t want tweaked wording or small concessions. They want to start by abolishing Rule 50 and establishing a new baseline. The conversation, and change, can continue from there.
Thursday’s call, the Olympians’ letter states, “was just the beginning of the collective work necessary to find a solution that respects and values the power and importance of the athlete voice for social change.”