Fifty-three years after Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s iconic medal podium protest in Mexico City, a new generation of activist athletes is poised to take centerstage at the Tokyo Olympics.
US sprinters Smith and Carlos faced the ultimate sanction for their black-gloved salute of defiance in 1968, expelled from the Games in disgrace and returning home to be greeted by widespread opprobrium.
But while attitudes to Smith and Carlos have shifted over time — the duo are now celebrated as civil rights heroes — the International Olympic Committee remains opposed to any kind of protest on medal podiums.
It means that US athletes determined to use their platform to draw attention to racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year are on a collision course with Olympic chiefs.
For years, the IOC has been guided by Rule 50 of its Olympic Charter, which dictates that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda” is permitted in Olympic sites or venues.
Yet that principle came under severe scrutiny during the tumult of 2020 and became viewed by critics as an outdated relic of a bygone era as athletes around the world demonstrated their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
In the United States, the anti-racism protests forced the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee into a dramatic U-turn.
In 2019, the USOPC had reprimanded hammer thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden for their protests on the podium at the Pan-American Games in Lima, warning that stiffer sanctions awaited athletes emulating them at the Olympics.
But the landscape was upended in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing, with the USOPC reviewing its rules to say that protests such as kneeling or raising a clenched fist on the podium were now acceptable.
While the rule change only applies to domestic competition, the USOPC has made it clear it will not sanction US athletes who protest at the Games in Tokyo that open on July 23.
“It is critical to state unequivocally that human rights are not political, and peaceful calls for equity and equality must not be confused with divisive demonstrations,” USOPC chief executive Sarah Hirshland said.
Berry, sanctioned by the USOPC in 2019, says she will have no hesitation about protesting if she wins a medal in Tokyo.
The 32-year-old staged a protest at last month’s US track and field trials in Oregon, turning away from the US flag as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played during a medal ceremony.
“When I get there I will figure out something,” Berry said after clinching her place on the team for Tokyo. “What I need to do is speak for my community, represent my community, and help my community, because it is so much more important than sport.”
The IOC however has declined to walk back its Rule 50. While updated guidelines released on July 2 said athletes could now protest peacefully prior to competition, any kind of demonstration on the podium remains forbidden.
What is unclear, however, is how any athletes protesting during a medal ceremony will be sanctioned.
The updated IOC rules say that disciplinary consequences will be “proportionate to the level of disruption and the degree to which the infraction is not compatible with Olympic values.”
That leaves a substantial degree of wiggle room for the IOC, with sanctions essentially determined by a subjective standard.
Bark worse than bite?
Global Athlete, a non-profit which advocates on behalf of athletes around the world and a long-time critic of Rule 50, believes the IOC’s bark may be worse than its bite when it comes to sanctioning athletes.
“I would be very surprised if the IOC were to sanction anyone for taking a knee or raising a fist on the podium,” Global Athlete director general Rob Koehler told AFP. “The public image and the backlash they get from the community would be huge. Some things you can never recover from.
“The IOC talk about this heavy-handed punitive approach – do it and you could be out of the Games. But it’s an arbitrary sanctioning. There’s no real rules on what happens if you do.”
Koehler also challenges the IOC’s claim to be an apolitical organisation, citing recent examples such as allowing a unified North-South Korean ice hockey team at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
“The IOC is not politically neutral,” Koehler said. “How can you expect something different from athletes that you expect from yourself?
“(IOC President) Thomas Bach when he visits foreign countries, meets heads of state. Why do you meet heads of states? Because it’s political.
“You have to allow athletes to have the same type of approach you have, and if you have a view on something you should be able to express it.”