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TOKYO – The Olympic flame hadn’t been lit here before athletes took a knee to protest social injustice. With women’s soccer competition beginning before the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Games on Friday, five teams – including the Americans – knelt on the field before the start of their games.
Given the statements, gestures, advocacy and activism athletes have been part of in recent years, it’s likely just the beginning of protests against racial and social injustice during these Games – no matter what the International Olympic Committee says.
The Tokyo Olympics open with the IOC slightly relaxing its Rule 50, which for years has barred “political, religious or racial propaganda,” to allow for demonstrations before competition as long as they are not disruptive.
But more is expected to come, including potentially on the podium where such protests could lead to sanctions from the IOC.
“The athletes realize that there is changes coming in the rules, that things are changing,” said Yannick Kluch, assistant professor for sport leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University. “With that being said, I do think that the athletes will play by their own rules. I don’t think any athlete who wants to speak up and makes the podium, wants to use their time to call attention to global injustice, their minds won’t be changed by these rules. They know what they stand for, and they want to use that.”
In recent years, athletes have supported Black Lives Matter and protested racial injustice. Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem was divisive enough for NFL owners to effectively blacklist him but is now commonplace in other sports.
The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 catalyzed the movement globally and put the IOC at odds with some national Olympic committees, including the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, coming into the Games.
IOC President Thomas Bach this week pointed to press conferences, mixed zones and social media as among the places where athletes could express their opinions.
“There their freedom of speech is fully protected,” he said, asserting that competitions and ceremonies should remain free of demonstrations.
Athlete activism during the Games is not new. The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City saw American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos make their iconic gesture atop the podium for the 200 meters, each raising a gloved fist in a Black Power salute.
The IOC expelled both from the Games but now celebrates them for their stand.
Despite that, it has remained committed to the same rule.
“It’s a shame that they’re not on board, but at the end of the day, we cannot control that,” said U.S. soccer defender Crystal Dunn in May. “What we can control is how we carry ourselves and what we stand for. And we’re just hoping to have a great Olympics and hopefully allowing the world to see where we stand and what we stand for off the field as well.”
Experts on athlete activism said the IOC’s willingness to clarify its rule shows a recognition of changing attitudes but doesn’t go far enough.
In a letter released by the Muhammad Ali Center and signed by more than 40 athletes – including Carlos, Smith, hammer thrower Gwen Berry and boxer Laila Ali – athlete groups, human rights experts and other advocates called on the IOC to allow more free expression by athletes. They asked the IOC not to sanction athletes for protests here or at the Beijing Winter Olympics in seven months. They requested that the IOC revisit its policy after those Games.
“Protests and demonstrations in support of human rights and racial and social justice in particular are rooted in a desire to provide vulnerable members of our global community, particularly those who belong to groups that have historically been excluded, marginalized, or minoritized, with the human dignity that must be at the heart of international sport governance,” they wrote.
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Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, pointed to the longstanding prevalence of white men, particularly from Europe and the United States, in leadership of both the IOC and the international federations that govern each sport. That “no doubt affects their positions in the social justice area,” he said, adding that those leaders have an opportunity to be leaders in combatting racism.
The IOC has argued for keeping sport neutral, but that is a fallacy, Kluch said. Sport is a reflection of society and can’t be neutral, he argued.
“If you say you are neutral, you are not taking into account the global injustices that exist and it means you are actually reinforcing these injustices,” Kluch said.
The IOC appointed its athletes’ commission to study the issue, and a survey of more than 3,500 found a majority said it was not appropriate to demonstrate on the podium, field of play or during ceremonies. Kluch questioned the validity of the report, noting in the letter than it did not include information on the racial demographics of the participants.
The IOC’s clarification, issued three weeks before the Games, leaves sanctions unclear. It says it will consider the degree of disruption, whether a demonstration advocates something prohibited under international human rights law and whether another participant complained, among other factors.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee last year said it would not sanction athletes for social and racial justice demonstrations, and it did not during U.S. trials.
In 2019, hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised her fist on the podium at Pan Am Games to protest racial inequality, while fencer Race Imboden knelt on one knee. The USOPC put them on probation but later apologized. Both signed onto the letter to the IOC.
After the Olympic trials – during which Berry wore a shirt that said “Athlete Activist” – she said athletes should use their voices, including at the Olympics.
“It’s our sacrifices, our podium, our moment, so we should be able to protest whenever we want,” she said.
Kluch, who advised the USOPC’s athlete-led council on racial and social justice, and Lapchick said they hoped the organization would advocate for its athletes.
“I am hoping that the USOPC will support American athletes in their fight for social justice by using a sports platform,” Lapchick said in an email.
It might have ample opportunity.
For her part, Berry said at trials that she would figure out something to do in Tokyo. If the early demonstrations from soccer players are any indicator, she might have company in challenging the rule.
“It’s fair to say that we’re living in what I would call the athlete empowerment era,” said Jules Boykoff, a professor at Pacific University who has written extensively about the Games, “and that’s a recipe for dissent at the Olympics.”
Contributing: Nancy Armour, Tom Schad
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2021 Olympics: Expect protests aplenty from athletes in Tokyo