Athlete activism reaches podium in Tokyo amid new IOC protest rules

Raven “Hulk” Saunders, the attention-grabbing American shot putter with her neon purple and green hair and flaming mask that echoed her nickname, became the first athlete risk IOC sanctions by protesting from the medal podium. Upon receiving his silver medal, Saunders raised his arms and crossed them in an X shape to represent “the intersection of where all oppressed people meet.” It was not the first event of the Games, and it will probably not be the last.

The Olympic flame was not even lit when the athletes started demonstrating in Tokyo. Olympians from women’s football teams from the United States, Sweden, Chile, Great Britain and New Zealand knelt for social justice ahead of the matches which began two days before the opening ceremony . The first weekend of competition, the Costa Rican gymnast Luciana Alvarado choreographed a demonstration in his routine. She did not advance to the final but smartly planned her presentation to kneel in front of the cameras.

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The Tokyo Games opened with a slight relaxation by the IOC of Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which for years maintained that sport should be “neutral,” with the exception of “political, religious or propaganda. racial ”, and severely punish some athletes for their activism. Last October, in an editorial, IOC President Thomas Bach called on athletes not to engage in political activism during the Games, declaring that “the Olympic Games are not about politics”. However, a few weeks before the Tokyo Games, he announced that the organization would allow pre-competition demonstrations as long as they were not disruptive. Although the IOC’s Rule 50 statement does not clarify the penalties, it said it would allow demonstrations on the pitch, as long as they take place before the start of action and are not on the podium.

The IOC has yet to comment on Saunders’ podium demonstration, but the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee has announced that after conducting its own review it found the silver medalist’s protest “respectful. of its competitors “and that it had not violated their rules relating to protests.

Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley and founder of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, believes the IOC needs to review its rules and make more concessions. The OPHR, which was formed in 1967, played a leading role in the iconic manifestation of the Black Power salute of two African-American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. “This concession to say, ‘We will not punish athletes who drop to one knee until they are on the podium,’ is not a concession, it is a co-option,” Edwards said during a telephone interview.

On the eve of the opening ceremony, the Muhammad Ali Center released a letter signed by more than 150 athletes, educators and activists asking the IOC to further relax its rules. Among those who signed and supported the document were Edwards, Smith, Carlos and Gwen Berry, the hammer thrower who made headlines in June after he turned away from the flag in protest on the podium at the Olympic Trials in athletics in the United States. Two summers ago, at the Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru, Berry and American fencer Race Imboden knelt at their respective medal ceremonies, resulting in a one-year probation period. by the US Olympic and Paralympic Committees.

The five-page letter called on the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) not to sanction athletes for kneeling or raising their fists like Smith and Carlos did in 1968. The IOC acknowledged receipt of the letter. but did not respond.

One of the signatories to the letter, Yannick Kluch, assistant professor of sports leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, believes we will see more protests. “Not just because the rules have been relaxed a bit – because they haven’t changed much – but because of what’s going on right now,” he said. Sportico.

Athlete activism during the Olympic Games has a long history. “Athletes have always been at the forefront of those who have been active in the pursuit of justice and freedom,” said Edwards. However, he argues, although the athletes were punished harshly for protesting in 1968, the “structural scaffolding” that supports a broad movement did not exist until 2013. “Once Black Lives Matter came into being , it became the ideological context in which these actions could be interpreted ”, he declared.

Whether it was the BLM-led protests last summer spurred by the murder of George Floyd, or the screams of #MeToo following the conviction of US gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar for criminal sexual conduct, the athletes stood up with more confidence and conviction than ever before, even denouncing anti-Asian sentiment over the COVID-19 pandemic. However, athlete activism is not limited to the United States.

Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who was scheduled to compete in the women’s 200-meter and 4 × 400-meter relay, requested police protection at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport on Sunday as she was involuntarily escorted to a return flight to Belarus. Belarusian officials claimed she lacked “team spirit” after complaining on social media about being asked to run in the relay without her consent. Tsimanouskaya asked the IOC for help. She received a humanitarian visa from Poland, where she reportedly intends to seek asylum.

In the past, athletes from different parts of the world have spoken of pressure and opposed human rights violations in their countries during the Olympic Games. While some have been punished, others have been spared IOC sanctions. For example, Ethiopian marathon runner and Olympic silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa folded his arms as if to protest Saunders’ podium when he crossed the finish line at the Rio Games in 2016 to oppose police crackdown of the Ethiopian government against the protests. Lilesa has not received formal punishment for her action.

“The International Olympic Committee operates under a regime of selective ethics,” said Jules Boykoff, former football player for the US National Under-23 team and now a university student, in a telephone interview. “He does what he wants when he wants, and consistency doesn’t really matter.”

The IOC said the concessions it had made to Rule 50 were in line with what the athletes wanted. The organization has appointed its Athletes’ Commission to study the matter. A survey of more than 3,500 athletes found that a majority said it was not appropriate to demonstrate on the podium, on the playing field or at ceremonies. However, Kluch questioned the validity of the report, noting in the letter that it did not include information on the racial demographics of the participants.

“I think the IOC’s argument that sport should be neutral is not valid in this context,” he said, “because sport has never been neutral in the first place”.

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