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TOKYO — The U.S. women's national team and other soccer teams knelt before kickoff of their Olympic openers on Wednesday, the first demonstrations under slightly relaxed restrictions on protest at the Games.
The demonstrations were pre-planned, as they have been before various international soccer matches for over a year now as collective statements against racism and other forms of discrimination. English Premier League players first popularized the gesture last summer in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder and the subsequent racial justice reckoning that spread from the U.S. around the world.
At the USA-Sweden game in an empty Tokyo Stadium, at the sound of the referee's whistle, all 11 starters from both teams, plus the ref, dropped to one knee. They stayed there for about 10 seconds with pregame music still playing in the background. They then rose, and a short in-stadium countdown to kickoff commenced.
Several USWNT players have, individually and sometimes collectively, knelt to protest racism in the past. Megan Rapinoe famously became the first white woman athlete to kneel during the national anthem soon after Colin Kaepernick did in 2017. Others have joined Rapinoe in protest before national team games since Floyd was murdered in May of 2020.
All 18 USWNT players stood for the anthem on Wednesday. It's unclear if a protest during the anthem would be acceptable under the new IOC rules. (National anthems aren't played before many Olympic events — only afterward, during medal ceremonies.)
Players from Great Britain and Chile also knelt before their match on Wednesday. They were, officially, the first to stage a pre-event protest that was acceptable under IOC rules.
“As a squad, it’s been a subject that we’ve spoken about for a few weeks now," Great Britain captain Steph Houghton said Tuesday. "We feel so strongly that we want to fight all forms of discrimination and inequality, not just within sport but in the world.”
The infamous Rule 50 had long prohibited athletes from sending this type of message, and from engaging in most forms of protest at Olympic events. In January 2020, the IOC specifically barred kneeling and fist-raising, among other acts, at all Olympic venues, at any point before, during or after a competition.
But pressure from athletes who felt the rules infringed upon their freedom of expression — and especially from Black athletes, some of whom felt targeted by the guidelines — increased beginning last June. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee's Athletes Advisory Council called for an abolishment of Rule 50 last summer. The USOPC, after forming a racial and social justice council, followed in calling on the IOC to “end the prohibition of peaceful demonstrations” at the Games.
In response, the IOC staged a lengthy review of the rule. It initially announced that it would, effectively, maintain the restrictions. But athletes, such as U.S. hammer thrower Gwen Berry, said the rules wouldn't stop them from protesting racial injustice. The IOC essentially sought a compromise, and announced in early July that demonstrations before competitions would be allowed.
Protests during competitions and medal ceremonies, however, are still prohibited.
Before Wednesday's second soccer game at the Tokyo Stadium, New Zealand players also took a knee. Australian players stood with their arms around one another at the center circle, after earlier posing with the Australian Aboriginal Flag.
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