American hammer throw athlete Gwen Berry, a medal contender at the Summer Olympics, has already raised her fist on the medal podium in a competition, and at a selection meeting for the U.S. Olympic track team, she faded away as the national anthem was played. , attracted worldwide attention and debate.
US Olympic officials, succumbing to the surge of athlete activism, are fine with that. The International Olympic Committee, however, is not.
With the Tokyo Games opening on July 23, U.S. and international Olympic officials are debating where to draw the line for protests as athletes in the sporting world, however contentious the issue has become, are social and political. Leverage your power and influence to promote the cause. .
Many athletes are hinting at the possibility of testing the limits with some kind of gesture at the Games. among them is Berry, who called the lyrics of the anthem disrespectful to black Americans.
“I’ll know something when I get there,” she said after finishing last on her program on the American team. “I need to speak up for my community, represent my community, and help my community, because that’s more important than sports.”
Berry’s actions at the US trials made him the target of criticism from conservative politicians, with some calling for him to be dropped from the Olympic team. that will not happen. He did not violate the National Olympic Committee’s rules on freedom of expression.
The leaders of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee announced in December that they would not punish American athletes who exercise their right of speech at the Games, as long as they do not commit hatred or assault towards an individual or group.
But the IOC, which on Friday new rules announced While allowing greater freedom of expression by athletes at venues, it said all performances would be forbidden on the medal stage, on the playground during the competition, and at the opening and closing ceremonies.
The new rules will tolerate, for example, an athlete who wears a shirt with the slogan or raises a gloved fist or kneels if it occurs before the start of a competition, including during the athlete introduction. also includes.
Athletes have long been free to express political views during news conferences, on social media, or in a “mixed zone” where they speak with news media after competition.
Yet the stage, where the national flag is hoisted and the national anthem is played, has come to be seen as a red line. It is not clear what penalties will be imposed for violating the new rules; The IOC has the power to take away medals and kick athletes out of the Games, although it is no longer beyond saying that each case will be assessed individually.
The United States has taken the position that, whatever the IOC does, it will not punish or reprimand athletes who make political statements. National Olympic committees and international sports federations can suspend athletes from competition, and as signatories of the Olympic Charter, they must in principle meet the penalty demanded by the IOC.
“They have a unique set of authority and jurisdiction and sanctions,” USOPC chief executive Sarah Hirshland said last week of international Olympic leaders. “We sit in a different seat.”
International Olympic leaders were not happy. Hirshland said he had “respectful but frank” talks with IOC leaders after they announced that their organization would not abide by Olympic protocol. Other IOC and US officials, with the knowledge of those discussions have been described as confrontational and acrimonious, with IOC officials seeing their US counterparts as violating the Olympic Charter.
Kirsty Coventry, an Olympic swimming champion from Zimbabwe who heads the IOC Athletes Commission and is a close ally of IOC President Thomas Bach, said in an interview on Thursday that all Olympians, regardless of nationality, should be treated equally .
Coventry, who has competed in five Olympic Games, said, “I can remember my first Olympics, being from a small African country, I felt as important as the athlete next to me.
The way IOC leaders see it, they must navigate the interests of athletes from more than 200 countries, many with differing political perspectives, and the rare opportunity of another athlete standing on a medal podium. You should stop diverting attention.
They argue that one athlete’s performance in support of equality and human rights may hurt another. For example, Israeli athletes may see a gesture demanding a Palestinian state as support for entities calling for the destruction of Israel.
The breach between the Americans and international Olympic officials developed after a period between the two organizations, which had been at odds for years. In 2017, after more than a decade driven by controversies over money, the IOC changed its rules to 2028 Summer Olympics To be awarded to Los Angeles ahead of schedule.
The leader of those Games, Casey Wassermann, began lobbying Bach more than a year ago to get rid of the ban he sees as political speech by the IOC. In June 2020, Wassermann wrote to Bach that the rule was out of date. In an interview, he said that Americans want to avoid the hypocrisy of athletes potentially being punished for exercising their right to freedom of speech on American soil during the 2028 Games as well as acknowledging changing times. To encourage the IOC.
“I start with the position that being anti-racist is not political,” Wasserman said last week. “I also believe that given the role athletes voice today, this is something that athletes will continue to express.”
Pressure from the United States and the influence of activism from many countries, including many of the world’s biggest sports stars, such as LeBron James and Naomi Osaka, have prompted the IOC to continue loosening its rules. That process has taken on new urgency as the Tokyo Games approach.
“There aren’t times in the world where anyone can stand on stage and be respected,” Coventry said of the decision to retain some restrictions. “It is really important for the podium to be clean and neutral. No one should be made to feel inferior on the podium.”
However, many American athletes believe that any range of speech that does not express hatred, in the words of the USOPC’s Racial and Social Justice Committee, “contributes to the dehumanization of the athletes who are the major Olympic and Paralympic athletes.” contrary to values”.
“Athletes are human first and athletes second, and part of being a human being is being able to express oneself and express one’s views,” said cycling two-time Paralympian Greta Niemnas, who is vice chair of the Athletes’ Advisory Council. USOPC “The IOC’s rule is a violation of that human right.”
Berry told Black News Channel that she objected to the anthem because “it’s obvious” that some of the lyrics allude to slavery.
“If you know your history, you’ll know the full lyrics of the national anthem. The third paragraph talks about slaves in America, our blood being killed,” she said. speaks. It’s clear, there’s no question.”
She may not be the only American athlete to perform in some way. World champion in the 200 meters, Noah Lyles, wore a black glove and raised his fist on the track during the US Trials.
“Everybody knows what my views on social justice are,” Lyle said after his final race at the Olympic Trials. “I can’t do everything myself, but I can make sure everyone knows what I think, and if they want to have a conversation and say, ‘Hey, that’s not right,’ then we can have a Let’s get together and change it. That’s why I’m here. I’m here to take the conversation forward and push the agenda.”
US and international Olympic officials disagree about how athletes feel about the issue.
During the past year, the IOC Athletes Commission surveyed athletes regarding the free speech issue. The commission reported that more than two-thirds of the 3,547 athletes from 185 countries said that political speeches and other forms of performance should not take place on the competition grounds, during the opening ceremony, or on the medal stage.
However, Neemnas said a survey of US athletes had revealed overwhelming support for athletes deciding when and where to express themselves.
The IOC has never spoken of taking away medals because of political statements, but it has Athletes sent home from games And some were permanently deported either for protest or for what was considered abusive behavior on stage. But it has been a long time since such punishment was given.
In 2016, Ethiopia’s Feisa Lilesa finished second in the marathon as she crossed the finish line, crossed his arms in a gesture Created by the Oromo people to protest the brutal police action. Lilesa’s use of the gesture – on the final day of the Games – was a clear violation of Olympic rules, then and now. Bach decided not to punish him.
Hirshland said the athletes had sought answers about penalties and impact. Is there an appeal process? How soon will the appeal be heard? “The clock is ticking and we don’t have a lot of time left,” she said.
David Vallechinsky, a prominent Olympic historian, said he thought the IOC was less concerned about what might happen at the Tokyo Games than what might happen at the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February, which were known to suppress free speech. goes.
“It’s not just about American athletes,” Walchinsky said. “Athletes from other countries are there with their concerns, and there are whole teams with human rights issues.”