The Olympics tend to bring out the best in athletes and the worst in the Games’ organizers. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics were no exception, with athletes rising up and thriving under the extraordinarily difficult conditions thrust upon them when the International Olympic Committee opted to host the Games amid the coronavirus pandemic, not to mention the sweltering Tokyo heat.
Allyson Felix set the record for most medals in track and field history, surpassing the legendary Carl Lewis. The Jamaican women and Italian men sprinters won the 4×100 relay in spectacular fashion. Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands medaled in the 1,500, 5,000, and 10,000. And gymnastics great Simone Biles showed the world that withholding her athletic labor could be just as powerful as executing her signature Yurchenko double pike.
Beyond all this, numerous Olympians rebuked a much-loathed Rule 50 nestled in the Olympic Charter that reads, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
A few weeks before the Tokyo Games began, the IOC made minor adjustments to the rule, issuing new guidelines whereby athletes were permitted to express their views “on the field of play prior to the start of the competition” so long as they did not target specific individuals, countries, or groups and their actions were neither “disruptive” nor a damper on anyone’s dignity. So when women soccer players from Britain and Chile took a knee to make a statement against racism before their match began, they were in compliance with the amended rule.
However, athletes were still banned from full-throated free expression. The guidelines dictate that competitors could not express their views on the field of play during competition, on the medal stand, during the opening and closing ceremonies, or even in the Olympic Village.
The only reason the IOC made these tepid concessions was a surge of backlash from around the world demanding change. As Tokyo 2020 opened, a group of athletes, academics, and human rights advocates released an open letter demanding that the IOC sync up Rule 50 with international human rights frameworks (full disclosure: Both authors were signatories).
Dr. Akilah Carter-Francique, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change at San Jose State University, told The Nation that she signed the letter in part because Rule 50’s “verbiage censors the voices and limits the actions of racialized groups—Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous—as well as allies of racialized groups who may choose to demonstrate on issues that disproportionately affect their lives, lived experiences, and communities.”
One athlete who refused to be censored is Raven Saunders, the US shot put star who won silver at the Games. After the athletes received their medals, Saunders crossed her arms in the form of an X. She explained that the gesture represented “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.” Embracing her role-model status, Saunders added, “For me, just being who I always aspired to be, to be able to be me and not apologize for it [and] show the younger generation that no matter what they tell you, no matter how many boxes they try to fit you in, you can be you.”
In an athlete-centered world, Saunders’s gesture would be celebrated by all. But the IOC vowed to investigate the gesture as a breach of Rule 50. For its part, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee stated that Saunders’s “peaceful expression in support of racial and social justice that happened at the conclusion of the ceremony was respectful of her competitors and did not violate our rules related to demonstration.” On Twitter, Saunders quipped, “Let them try and take this medal. I’m running across the border even though I can’t swim.” After it was revealed that Saunders’s mother—Clarissa Saunders—had suddenly died following her silver medal, an IOC spokesperson said its inquiry was “fully suspended for the time being.”
Nikki Dryden, a two-time Olympian in swimming for Canada, told The Nation, “Once you get to the Olympics, you might have one fleeting moment in the light without anyone editing you. Olympians who choose to use that moment to shine attention on something of deep meaning to them, should not be punished. In fact, they should be supported and celebrated.”
Regardless of what the cretins at the IOC decide to do, Saunders’s act of dissent was epic—among the most memorable acts of athlete activism in Olympic history. Carter-Francique told us that Saunders’s actions were poignant in their purposefulness: “Her demonstration, her gesture, her representation on the podium broached a conversation that would amplify her personal intersectional experience as Black, female, and queer and proved to amplify the role of mental health, wellness, and illness for all athletes and non-athletes nationally and internationally.” She added, “It was a moment of empowerment, an activist othermothering as a Black female, and a continuation of Black athlete-activist traditions.”
Saunders was not the only athlete to challenge Rule 50. US fencer Race Imboden had a black X scrawled on his hand when he received his medal. He explained on Twitter how athletes chose the symbol “to show solidarity for each other and support the oppressed.” He added that for him it was also a strike against the unjust Rule 50.
Costa Rican gymnast Luciana Alvarado wove a tribute to Black Lives Matter into her floor routine, taking a knee and spearing a fist skyward. Dryden, the Canadian Olympian, pointed out, “As a female-dominated sport with no IOC members from gymnastics, gymnasts have no power in the Olympic Movement, making Luciana’s activism even more powerful to me.”
Then there was Bao Shanju and Zhong Tianshi, gold-medal winners from China in sprint cycling, who donned pins featuring Chairman Mao while on the medal stand. Hong Kong Olympic badminton athlete Angus Ng Ka-long wore a black T-shirt during competition with the words “Hong Kong, China” on it, rather than the official jersey worn by his teammates—black T-shirts are often linked to the pro-democracy movement in China.
Beyond these acts, representation very much matters. It should not be overlooked that the Tokyo 2020 Games were historic for transgender athletes. Quinn became the first out transgender or nonbinary athlete to win a medal at the Olympics when Canada took gold in women’s soccer. Laurel Hubbard competed for New Zealand in women’s weightlifting. Alana Smith became the first out nonbinary athlete to represent the United States at the Games when they competed in street skateboarding.
What is clear is that Olympic athletes are not going to silence themselves. That is an IOC fantasy. Instead, a new generation of athletes, inspired by the recent years of athletic outspokenness and behind-the-scenes organizing, is demanding to be heard. Rule 50 belongs in history’s dustbin. If the IOC doesn’t put it there, they will be forcibly compelled to by athletes no longer content with quietude.