There is an old joke that floats through Olympic circles: How many members of the International Olympic Committee does it take to screw in a lightbulb? The Answer? Zero. They are too busy screwing over athletes who wish to express political dissent. Indeed, the IOC has a long history of punishing and threatening athletes who have the temerity to speak out on social justice issues, whether it’s John Carlos and Tommie Smith after their iconic medal stand protest in 1968 or Damien Hooper, the Australian boxer who at the 2012 Olympics wore a T-shirt into the ring celebrating his Aboriginal roots.
A bold move by the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee may render that joke moot. Last week, the USOPC announced that it would not sanction US Olympic athletes who protest “peacefully and respectfully…in support of racial and social justice for all human beings.” This was a direct repudiation of a rule in the Olympic Charter that states, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” With Team USA a major power broker in Olympic circles, pressure mounts on the IOC to reconsider its rule prohibiting political dissent—the infamous Rule 50—in advance of the postponed Tokyo Summer Olympics.
This sharp shift in direction by the USOPC did not come out of nowhere. In recent years, the IOC’s rule forbidding jock activism has become a major source of discontent among Olympic athletes. Groups like Global Athlete and the Athletics Association have been fighting for athlete rights both in the public sphere and behind the scenes.
But the game changer was the massive, nationwide protests this summer after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which saw many athletes both speak out and take it to the streets. In response to this political tinderbox, the USOPC set up an athletes’ working group—the 44-member Council on Racial and Social Justice—and charged it with providing “recommendations with the aim of eradicating social injustice and cultivating change through strengthened athlete voices.” The IOC’s increasingly out-of-tune rule against dissent fell smack into the group’s purview.
All too often, blue-ribbon commissions are places where good ideas go to die. But not in this instance. The group made firm recommendations that cut against the grain of IOC power and preference. And to the USOPC’s credit, its leaders listened. One recommendation demands that the International Olympic Committee and International Paralympic Committee “update guidelines to allow for peaceful actions that specifically advocate for human rights and racial and social justice.” It must be noted that the group differentiated “those acts from to-be-defined ‘divisive demonstrations’—including, but not limited to, currently prohibited acts of hate speech, racist propaganda, political statements and discrimination.” In the future, one could certainly see conflict between what one person sees as a call for racial justice and what another could brand a “political statement,” but for now this is broadly a step in the right direction.
This was a direct response to guidelines issue by the IOC earlier this year that specifically forbade activism at the Tokyo Olympics, prohibiting “gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling.” The IOC stated that their guidelines were simply meant to help people “enjoy the experience of the Olympic Games without any divisive disruption,” but they were clear and obvious jabs at two US Olympians—hammer-thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden—who raised a fist and took a knee, respectively, at the 2019 Pan American Games to fight back against racial inequality. When asked about these specific gestures of dissent, USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland replied, “I can’t imagine that kneeling or raising a fist would be considered” insensitive.
In a letter to US Olympians, Hirshland went further:
I would be remiss to not address the experiences of Team USA athletes Dr. John Carlos, Dr. Tommie Smith, Gwen Berry and Race Imboden, whose peaceful and courageous protests were met with reprimand or indifference. It is now clear that this organization should have supported instead of condemned, and advocated for understanding instead of relying on previous precedent. For that I apologize.
We reached out to Gwen Berry who said, “I’m happy with the recommendations announced by the USOPC Racial and Social Justice committee this morning and USOPC’s statement that athletes will no longer be sanctioned for peaceful protests. I was also happy to read about [World Athletics President] Seb Coe’s ongoing support for the rights of athletes to protest. The ball is firmly now in the IOC’s court to do what’s right and ban Rule 50 altogether.”
But that is not all Gwen Berry had to say. She also made clear that our focus should not be on the “right to gesture” as much as it should be on “the reasons behind our protests in the first place.”
“The fact is,” she said, ”that Incarceration of blacks in America, the killing of innocent black people by police and the gap in equity between the wealthiest Americans and black people is worse than it was 52 years ago when Tommie and John protested in Mexico. I will continue to be focused on these issues, more than worrying about the IOC who is detached from reality, and I will doing whatever I can to help because in reality, education and support for black youths and support for black businesses are ways to proactively improve black lives in America.”
Statements like these are a reminder that this isn’t about the securing the right for some kind of performative atmosphere but the right of athletes to use their platforms to draw attention to injustice. Hopefully they will also push the USOPC to challenge the IOC directly to finally abolish the infamous Rule 50 in the Olympic Charter.
Today, John Carlos and Tommie Smith are regarded as heroes, even featured in a video on the damn Olympic Channel. The idea of praising the rebels of the past while squelching those of the present and future is simply untenable.