Will it happen at the start line? On the carpet? In the swimming pool? At the top of the rostrum? Perhaps during the opening ceremonies, forcing the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to immediately consider the ramifications of its threat to punish athletes for demonstrating against racial injustice in Tokyo?
At least one athlete is likely to defy IOC rules against protests during the Games, which open on Friday. The question of what might happen, and what the punishment might be, adds another layer of tension to an already problematic Olympics.
“Without a doubt, someone is going to make a statement,” predicted John Carlos, who made his name history at the medals stand in Mexico City in 1968 as he raised a black-gloved fist with his US teammate Tommie Smith. .
It could be hammer thrower Gwen Berry, who raised her fist on the medal bar at the 2019 Pan Am Games and turned away from the American flag in June while accepting a medal at the United States Olympic Trials. It could be fencer Race Imboden, who knelt at the 2019 Pan Am Games. It could be football star Megan Rapinoe, who last year sworn, “We will not be silenced.” It could be Noah Lyles, who runs with a black glove on one hand and raised his fist at the start line of the Olympic Trials in June. Lyles is a favorite to win gold in Tokyo in the 200 meters – the same race Carlos ran in 1968.
Carlos won bronze and Smith won gold. After their protest, they were kicked out of the Olympic Village, vilified by US Olympic officials and the media, and excluded for decades from athletic and professional opportunities. Carlos is now recognized as a hero of the civil rights movement and is part of the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice, which pushed the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) to support athletes who express their freedom of expression during the race. competition.
If the athletes demonstrate in Tokyo, some IOC officials “are going to sue them, try to make fun of them,” Carlos said in an interview. “The difference is that 53 years ago they could mislead people. I don’t think they can rule people as blindly as they were 53 years ago.
Berry told CNN she hasn’t decided what to do in Tokyo: “It depends on how I feel. It depends on what I want to do at that time and what I want to do for my people at that time. And I’ll do whatever comes upon me and whatever’s in my heart. Imboden, a white athlete whose activism was inspired by mass shootings and police violence against blacks, also refused to disclose his plans. “The protests are based on breaking the rules,” he told me by phone from the US Olympic and Paralympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “And if I feel like it is necessary or if I feel the need to speak, or if I want to speak, then I will and I will face the consequences.”
As much as some like to claim that sport can or should exist separately from the problems of the world, the Olympics have always served as a stage for exposing injustice. And you can’t remove the policy from an event that separates competitors by nationality and keeps a tally of the countries that win the most medals.
National protests and strife have been a part of the modern Olympics almost from the start. In 1906 Irish jumper Peter O’Connor was forced to compete for the British team, so he climbed the Olympic pole carrying his country’s green and gold flag. Jesse Owens’ rule in Berlin in 1936 rebuked the racist ideology of Adolf Hitler. In 1964, South Africa was excluded from the Games due to its racist apartheid government. Carlos and Smith weren’t the only athletes to protest in 1968 – Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska displayed subtle but powerful resistance as the Soviet anthem played. Eleven Israelis were killed in Munich in 1972 by Palestinian terrorists. Twenty-eight African nations boycotted the 1976 Olympics because of apartheid. During the Cold War, the United States refused to compete in Moscow in 1980. Four years later, the Soviet Union boycotted the Los Angeles Games.
The Games of the 1990s and 2000s were an era of relative athletic silence, when Michael Jordan’s main concern at the Olympic medals stand in 1992 was covering the Reebok logo. But since the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, which saw no manifestations of racial justice, the role of athletes in society has changed.
Five days after the Rio closing ceremonies, quarterback Colin Kaepernick first spoke publicly about his refusal to defend the national anthem to protest racial injustice. A month earlier, Jordan had said he could no longer remain silent about police violence against blacks. Last year, athletes freed innocent people and helped rock a presidential election. And when George Floyd was assassinated by police in the summer of 2020, athletes were prominent voices in the new civil rights movement.
In 2019, the USOPC reprimanded Berry and Imboden and placed them on probation after the Pan Am Games. Then 2020 arrived, and like so many other American institutions, the USOPC was forced to change and allowed American athletes to protest.
But the Olympics are governed by the IOC, which said in April that athletes kneeling, raising their fists or wearing something with a message of racial justice would be punished under Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter. The rule states: “No kind of political, religious or racial manifestation or propaganda is permitted at any Olympic venues, venues or other areas.”
Advocating for racial justice and human rights is not “propaganda”. And although freedom of speech in America is not supposed to be subject to the dictates of the majority, the IOC said its decision was based on a poll of 3,500 athletes which showed most did not want protests.
The review was led by Kirsty Coventry, head of the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission and former Olympic white swimming champion from the liberated British colony now known as Zimbabwe. She had previously likened a Black Lives Matter protest to a white supremacist protest. She promised athletes who protested would be punished, but did not say how. “I wouldn’t want something to distract from my competition and take that away. This is how I still feel today, ”said Coventry.
Coventry’s comments are emblematic of an Olympic hierarchy that constantly does business with governments that violate human rights and enriches its own officials when many athletes need a day job. This IOC is continuing the Games despite Tokyo’s state of emergency and opposition from most Japanese citizens.
If the athletes decide to protest in Tokyo, it will take extraordinary bravery for them to do so during the opening ceremonies and risk being sent home without competition after years of training. No fans will be at venues in and around Tokyo due to restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic, so a strategic protest would target more television cameras broadcasting the Games around the world.
American women in soccer and basketball are perhaps the most likely to make a statement that breaks IOC rules. They have proven themselves to be bold, empathetic, determined and self-sufficient. The football team knelt during the national anthem until the start of the year. They are also among the most dominant teams in the world. If they win gold, take collective action at the medal stand, and then get kicked out, the absurdity of the punishment would draw even more attention to the justness of their cause.
Imboden said the IOC is interpreting Rule 50 to combat recent athlete empowerment. “The IOC is reacting directly to what is going on, even if it wants to pretend it is not changing anything,” he said. “And they react strongly by saying that they don’t want us to have a voice. And that’s because of their sponsorships. It’s because of the money that’s at stake. And it’s because they don’t see us as people. They see us as workers, as people showing up and we’re supposed to do what we’re told and wear what we’re told to wear. It’s very interesting to see how much of the experience really belongs to you, as an Olympian, when it comes to the IOC rules. So much about race, politics and protest have changed since the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016. So many athletes have gained a better understanding of their influence and their responsibility to use their extraordinary physical gifts to help them. other. American athletes in particular are gaining the world’s attention because they hold the world’s most powerful nation accountable while demonstrating the freedom that is the source of American might.
The Olympic Movement aspires to be more than a race for individual and national glory. For an athlete, reserving a space to protest, to help others, as he reaches the Olympic summit is in fact one of the highest expressions of the Olympic philosophy of life – an ideal which “puts sport in the service of humanity ”, expressed through actions that link sport, culture and education.
“Express yourself,” Carlos advised the 2020 Olympians. “If you feel that you love yourself, that you love your humanity, speak up. Be dignified in what you do and have a solid understanding so that you can articulate the why, where, and what of your demonstration.
I wanted to ask the IOC if Smith and Carlos were on the right side of the story, but the press service declined to provide an interview, instead referring me to a statement allowing athletes to speak out in interviews or before the start. of the competition. I wanted to know if the IOC now recognizes that Smith and Carlos raised their fists for human rights, educating the world about sacrifice and the true meaning of equality.
Fifty-three years later, will the IOC be the bad guy again?