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TOKYO — These Olympic Games are never far from the hint of a gesture or protest, a moment of free speech, an opportunity to make a statement.
So it came as absolutely no surprise that U.S. hammer thrower Gwen Berry entered the Olympic Stadium Tuesday night by raising her right fist not once but twice, several seconds apart, to announce that she of all people would be taking advantage of the International Olympic Committee’s relaxed rules allowing freedom of speech prior to the start of play.
“It was the same thing,” she said of her gesture after finishing well off the podium and out of the medals in 11th place out of 12 competitors, “social injustice, racial injustice, I’m just here to represent. I know a lot of people like me, a lot of athletes like me, a lot of people are scared to succeed, a lot of people scared to speak out. So as long as I can represent those people, I’m fine.”
Berry’s raised fist here was the equivalent of the women’s soccer players taking a knee before game after game around these Olympics. It was a nod to the protest that Berry herself initiated at the 2019 Pan American Games, when she raised her right fist on the medal podium after winning the gold medal and was put on probation by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, even though the probation included no actual punishment.
In those two years, much has changed. The IOC allows some demonstrations where it never did before, and the USOPC is now fighting hard for the rights of athletes to express their rights, even on the medal stand — which the IOC still officially doesn’t allow — as silver-medal-winning shot putter Raven Saunders did Sunday when she made an “X” with her arms “for oppressed people,” after the anthem was played for the Chinese gold medalist.
Berry, 32, criticized the IOC for saying it was looking into Saunders’ demonstration, even though it has said nothing official about it.
“I think it’s ridiculous that the IOC is really paying attention to that,” Berry said, “only because she did it towards the end of everything. They literally took their picture, she literally respected everybody on the podium. It was right before they were going off the podium (that she raised her arms and made an X) at the end. I feel she should not be punished so I hope the USOPC supports her and fights for her so she keeps her medal and she’s supported.”
Over the past two years, Berry has become a lightning rod for those who criticize athletes who protest. In addition to her Pan Am Games demonstration, she turned away from the American flag during the playing of the national anthem at the U.S. track and field trials in June.
“All those people that’s happy that I failed, that’s cool, but they’re sitting on their couch, watching me fail, so what does that tell you about them?” she said.
First and foremost, Berry came here to compete, and she said she was “kind of bummed” with her performance at these Games.
“I feel like my body just didn’t work and I was shutting down too much,” she said. "When it came time to be clutch, I just didn’t trust myself enough to go. But it happens. I made my first legal throw in the second final of my life so I’m not mad at myself. I conquered a lot of fears today.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Olympian Gwen Berry raises fist in protest as IOC relaxes rules