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American hammer throw athlete Gwen Berry, a medal contender at the Summer Olympics, has already raised her fist on a medal pedestal in a competition, and at the selection meeting of the US Olympic track and field team, she turned away when the national anthem was played, worldwide Attracted attention and debate.
U.S. Olympic officials bowing to a surge in athlete activism agree. The International Olympic Committee, however, does not.
With the upcoming opening of the Games in Tokyo on July 23, American and international Olympic officials are arguing about where to draw the line for protests, because athletes throughout the world of sports, no matter how controversial the issue has become, use their power and influence to promote social and political causes.
A number of athletes signal the opportunity to test the limits of the game with a gesture. Among them is Berry, who described the anthem’s lyrics as disrespectful to black Americans.
“When I get there, I’ll find out something,” she said after securing the last place in her event on the US team. “I have to speak for my community, represent my community and help my community because it is so much more important than sport.”
Berry’s actions in the US trials made her the target of criticism from conservative politicians, some calling for her to be removed from the Olympic team. That will not happen. You have not violated the rules of the National Olympic Committee on freedom of expression.
The leaders of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee announced in December that American athletes who exercise their right to freedom of expression at the Games will not be punished unless they hate or attack any person or group.
But the IOC, which on Friday announced new rules for more freedom of expression for athletes at the venues, said all demonstrations on the medal podium, on the field during competition, and at the opening and closing ceremonies are banned.
For example, the new rules would tolerate an athlete wearing a shirt with a slogan or raising a gloved fist or kneeling if this happened before the start of a competition, including during the athlete performance.
Athletes have long been free to express their political views at press conferences, on social media, or in the “mixed zone” where they speak to the media after the competition.
But the podium on which national flags are hoisted and national anthems are played is now considered a red line. It is not clear what the penalties for violating the new rules will be; the IOC has the power to withdraw medals and ban athletes from the Games, though it wouldn’t reach out now other than to say that each case would be judged individually.
The United States’ position has been that whatever the IOC does, the IOC does not punish or reprimand athletes who make political statements. National Olympic committees and international sports federations can exclude athletes from competing, and as a signatory to the Olympic Charter they must theoretically take some punishment required by the IOC
“You have the authority and the jurisdiction and a unique set of sanctions,” Sarah Hirshland, executive director of USOPC, told international Olympic leaders last week. “We’re sitting in a different place.”
The international Olympic leaders were not pleased. Hirshland said she had had “respectful but frank” conversations with IOC leaders since announcing that her organization would not follow Olympic protocol. Other IOC and US executives familiar with these discussions have described them as confrontational and bitter, with IOC officials viewing their American counterparts as violating the Olympic Charter.
Kirsty Coventry, Olympic swimming champion from Zimbabwe who heads the IOC Athletes Commission and is a close ally of Thomas Bach, the President of the IOC, said in an interview on Thursday that all Olympians, regardless of nationality, must be treated equally.
“I can remember my first Olympic Games, as I come from a small African country, I felt as important as the athlete next to me,” said Coventry, who has played in five Olympic Games.
According to IOC executives, they need to steer the interests of athletes from more than 200 nations, many with different political views, and keep anyone from drawing attention to another athlete’s rare chance to stand on a medal podium.
They argue that one athlete’s demonstration for equality and human rights could offend another. For example, Israeli athletes may perceive a gesture demanding Palestinian statehood as support for units that have called for the destruction of Israel.
The rift between the Americans and the international Olympic officials developed after a period of detente between the two organizations that had been at odds for years. In 2017, after more than a decade of exasperation, mainly driven by disputes over money, the IOC even changed its rules to allow the 2028 Summer Olympics to be prematurely awarded to Los Angeles.
The leader of these games, Casey Wasserman, began lobbying for Bach more than a year ago to lift the IOC’s ban on political speech. In June 2020 Wasserman Bach wrote that the rule was out of date. In an interview, he said Americans wanted to avoid the hypocrisy of athletes who may be punished for exercising their right of free speech on American soil during the 2028 Games, and also to encourage the IOC to recognize the changing times.
“I assume that being anti-racist is not political,” Wasserman said last week. “I also believe that given the role athletes play today, the voice they have is something that athletes will continue to express.”
Pressure from the United States and the influence of activism from athletes from several countries, including many of the world’s greatest sports stars such as LeBron James and Naomi Osaka, have led the IOC to further relax its rules. This process has taken on a new urgency as the Tokyo Games approached.
“There aren’t many times in the world where everyone can stand on a podium and be respected,” said Coventry of the decision to uphold certain bans. “It’s really important that the podium is clean and neutral. Nobody should feel inferior on a podium. “
However, many American athletes believe that any restriction on freedom of speech that does not express hatred “contributes to the dehumanization of athletes that contradicts core Olympic and Paralympic values,” as the Race and Social Justice Committee of the USOPC puts it.
“Athletes are first and foremost people and secondarily athletes, and part of being human is expressing yourself and expressing your views,” said Greta Neimanas, two-time Paralympist in cycling and vice-chairman of the USOPC Athletes’ Advisory Board IOC violates this human right. “
Berry told the Black News Channel that she disapproves of the anthem because “it is obvious” that some of the lyrics allude to slavery.
“If you know your story, you will know the full national anthem song. The third paragraph is about slaves in America, our blood is being killed, ”she said. “That is disrespectful and does not speak for black Americans. It’s obvious, no question about it. “
She may not be the only American athlete to demonstrate in any way. Noah Lyles, the 200 meter world champion, wore a black glove during the US trials and raised his fist on the track.
“Everyone knows what I think of social justice,” Lyles said after his last race in the Olympic Trials. “I can’t do it all by myself, but I can make sure everyone knows what I’m thinking and if they want to have a conversation and say, ‘Hey, this is not right,’ then we’ll get together and change that. That’s what I’m here for. I’m here to get the conversation going and move the agenda forward. “
American and international Olympic officials disagree about the overall view of the athletes on this issue.
Last year the IOC Athletes Commission asked athletes about freedom of expression. The commission reported that more than two-thirds of 3,547 athletes from 185 countries said that political speeches and other forms of demonstration should not take place on the field, during the opening ceremony, or on the medal podium.
However, Neimanas said a survey of American athletes showed overwhelming support for letting athletes choose when and where to speak out.
The IOC has never gone so far as to withdraw medals for political speech, but it has sent athletes home from the Games and banned some permanently from a podium, either in protest or for their disrespectful behavior. But it has been a long time since such a penalty was imposed.
In 2016, Feyisa Lilesa from Ethiopia took second place in the marathon and crossed her arms when crossing the finish line in an Oromo gesture in protest against the brutal actions of the police. Lilesa’s use of the gesture – on the last day of the Games – was then, as now, a clear violation of Olympic rules. Bach decided not to punish him.
Hirshland said the athletes were looking for answers about penalties and consequences. Is there an appeal procedure? How soon would an appeal be heard? “The clock is ticking and we don’t have much time,” she said.
David Wallechinsky, a leading Olympic historian, said he believed the IOC was less concerned about what might happen at the Tokyo Games than about what might happen at the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, in a country that is known to suppress freedom of expression.
“This is not just about US athletes,” said Wallechinsky. “There are athletes from other countries with their own concerns and entire teams with human rights problems.”