Stick to sport? Here’s what could happen to Olympians protesting at the Tokyo Games

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Since the Olympic Games began in 1896, athletes have used the international stage to shed light on issues of social justice.

One of the most iconic protests came from Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the 1968 200-meter gold and bronze medalists, who each put on a glove and raised their fists to protest the black treatment of United States. .

Since then, according to sports historians like Jules Boykoff and Louis Moore, the International Olympic Committee has cracked down on the protests.

The rule, Article 50, was reaffirmed by the IOC ahead of the Tokyo Games and states that “no kind of political, religious or racial demonstration or propaganda is allowed at any Olympic venues, venues or other areas” .

In June, a group of top American athletes, including Carlos, sent a letter to the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee asking to remove this part of the article, which has since been updated to allow athletes to express their point of view in specific places. and mediums, such as when speaking to the media, at team meetings or on the playing field before competition.

This amendment goes on to say that protests cannot be targeted “directly or indirectly, against persons, countries, organizations and / or their dignity” and “non-disruptive”. Their examples of disruptive protests include expressions during the national anthem or the introduction of another athlete or team.

“The emphasis at the Olympic Games must remain on the performance of the athletes, sport and the international unity and harmony that the Olympic Movement seeks to promote,” says IOC Athletes’ Commission on the guidelines of the article 50. “It is a fundamental principle that sport is neutral and must be separated from any political, religious or any other kind of interference.”

But Moore, a historian at Grand Valley State University, said that for marginalized groups, it’s impossible to separate the Olympics from politics.

“The Olympics in themselves are political,” said Moore. “The United States participated in the Jim Crow Society. These are the athletes who go to the Olympics with the United States on their chest, and they come back as second class citizens. Let’s say they don’t speak – but they always go there with the intention of proving something. “

Athletes who protest may face consequences or disciplinary action, although the IOC did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment on what specific sanctions might look like.

Protests of the past

One of the first protests was in 1906, when Peter O’Connor, an Irish athlete, traveled to Greece with his Irish flag in his hand. However, a technicality in the rules meant that since Ireland did not have an Olympic Council, the Irish athletes would compete for the English.

When he placed second in the long jump, England’s Union Jack was ready to greet O’Connor on the podium. But instead, O’Connor climbed a flag pole and replaced the Union Jack with the Irish flag “Erin go Bragh”. Downstairs, his fellow Irish athletes were protecting him from safety.

In 1968, Smith and Carlos were suspended and expelled from the games for their protest. The two also did not wear shoes on the catwalk and instead wore black socks to represent poverty in the black community.

Smith, Carlos and Peter Norman, the Australian second-place winner in the 200-meter race that supported their movement, all wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights badges. The group, created by sociologist Harry Edwards, was created to highlight inequality and injustice.

Smith and Carlos were blacklisted, and the backlash took a toll on their personal and professional relationships, according to Boykoff, the historian.

“They paid a real price for their athletic activism,” Boykoff added. “The two struggled to find work when they returned to the United States.”

Another track and field athlete, Wyomia Tyus, was also part of the militant organization and protested at the Mexico Games. Instead of wearing her team uniform, she wore black shorts in the Olympic 100-meter final. It was his way of silently protesting racial injustice in the United States.

Also at the 1986 Games, VÄ›ra Čáslavská, a Czechoslovak gymnast, turned her head away from the Soviet flag during the medal ceremony to protest against the Soviet Union‘s invasion of Czechoslovakia shortly before the Games. Čáslavská fled the country as a vocal critic of the Soviet regime.

In 2012, Damien Hooper, an Aboriginal boxer from Australia, wore a T-shirt with the Aboriginal flag in the ring for a match at the London Games.

The IOC has criticized the Australian Olympic Committee for its actions because the rules prohibit the use of flags that are not official country flags – and he then apologized.

In 2016, Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms above his head as he crossed the finish line – a gesture used by the Oromo people, who suffered massacres at the hands of Ethiopian police, according to Human Rights Watch.

As the Olympics – slated for July 23 through August 8 – approach, many have an eye on what the protests will look like following a recent racial calculation in the United States

In a move widely credited with a fresh start with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, athletes from several U.S. professional sports leagues have protested against social injustices and systemic racism.

Kaepernick and players from the WNBA, NBA, MLB and NHL protested by dropping one knee during the national anthem, staging team-wide strikes and wearing outfits protest, including T-shirts emblazoned with “SAY HIS NAME”, referencing Breonna Taylor

Events expected in Tokyo

Gwen Berry, a track and field athlete who turned away from the American flag during the Olympic trials in the United States as the national anthem was played, has already received backlash for her silent protest on the podium.

“I never said I hated the country,” Berry told the Black News Channel in an interview. “All I said was that I respect my people enough not to endure or recognize anything that disrespects them.”

Berry considers herself a “militant athlete” and has made several peaceful protests against systemic racism at competitions.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki spoke on behalf of President Joe Biden in support of his actions:

“I know [Biden] is incredibly proud to be an American and has great respect for the anthem and everything it stands for, “Psaki said.” He would also say that part of that pride in our country means acknowledging that there is times when we, as a country, have “failed to live up to our highest ideals and mean respecting the constitutionally granted right of individuals to demonstrate peacefully.” “

Several Republicans, including Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, have spoken out against Berry and other athletes who may be protesting at the Olympics.

“We don’t need militant athletes anymore,” Crenshaw said on “Fox and Friends”. “She should be taken off the squad. The goal of the Olympic team is to represent the United States of America.”

Moore said black athletes have long been criticized and suppressed when it comes to expressing their beliefs, and he believes efforts to silence Berry show just how powerful his message is.

“She’s officially the voice of this moment,” Moore said. “That’s the most powerful part about it, is that a black woman holds the court – she has the world’s attention.”

However, sport historians and analysts claim that sport can be a tool for dialogue and that athletes have been a great force in drawing attention to issues of injustice and inequality.

“A lot of sports fans consider themselves apolitical and therefore have to face certain elements of society that they might not otherwise have faced through sports,” Boykoff said. “Sport can be an important entry point for people to have conversations about politics that they would never otherwise have.”


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