At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith were told before their 200-meter race that any protest would be met with severe consequences. If they made it to the winner’s podium, they were to stand in silence and do nothing else. The messenger of this ominous warning was none other than 1936 Olympic legend Jesse Owens, bringing the word directly from imperious International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage. Carlos and Smith were fed up with both the racism in what Brundage termed “the Olympic Movement” and oppression in the broader society. So they dared to raise their fists after coming in first and third, creating a moment that has stood the test of time.
Today, the IOC, in the corroded spirit of Brundage, is putting down a similar dictate. And athletes—in the tradition of Smith and Carlos—will have to decide whether they dare to transgress the almighty IOC. Thomas Bach, the 21st-century version of Brundage, has put forward regulations that specifically ban the words “Black Lives Matter” from appearing on the clothing of any athlete. Yet, in an eye-rolling display of milquetoast, corporate liberalism, words like “peace,” “respect,” “solidarity,” “inclusion,” and “equality” are perfectly acceptable if worn on T-shirts before and after events.
The International Olympic Committee has also made clear that it will be strictly enforcing its infamous Rule 50, which threatens punishment for any athlete who raises a fist or takes a knee on the medal stand. This decision is a shot across the bow at the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which, in a rather shocking turnaround from its historic stance on these matters, has said that it would back athletes who take part in demonstrations. It also feels strongly like a specific warning to Olympic hammer thrower Gwen Berry. Raised in Ferguson, Mo., where the Black Lives Matter movement truly took off after the police killing of Michael Brown, Berry lifted her fist from the medal stand at the 2019 Pan Am Games. She has said, unapologetically and unafraid, in response to the IOC’s dictate, “You cannot control what I say, how I fight for what I believe in, because you have not lived my life…. You do not have any idea. So you cannot control my narrative—and then capitalize off of it based on your control.”
In addition, Tianna Bartoletta, an US Olympic gold medalist in the long jump and 4×100-meter relay, tweeted, “What the IOC has failed to understand is that we weren’t asking for permission. We were extending an invitation.” She also said to Women’s Running, “It was mostly about, ‘Do you see us? We’re the talent, we’re the people that make your show run—do you see us?’ And the answer is ‘No, we do not.’”
Her words are reminiscent of those of John Carlos: “Tell the white people of America and all over the world that if they don’t seem to care for the things black people do, they should not go to see black people perform.”
The IOC, by drawing this line in the sand, may have stepped in its own steaming load of domineering authoritarianism. What gives a protest meaning is precisely the level of daring and risk that accompanies it. There is a world of difference between a high school soccer player taking a knee at a private school, knowing that they could be kicked off the team, while a crowd jeers and throws garbage at their head, and an NBA team—along with coaches and officials—taking a knee in a sanctioned expression of dissent. The IOC, by raising its own hammer of punishment, has officially imbued any protests at the Tokyo Games with meaning, and that has set the stage for a dissent that can make a different level of impact for those who dare.
As for consequences, we know what happened in 1968. Carlos and Smith were banned from the Olympic Village and made pariahs in the Olympic community. But I always go back to something Carlos said to me just a couple of years back: “I have no regrets. The people with regrets are those who had a chance to stand up in 1968, but did nothing.” No matter the resulting storm, the people who defy the IOC this summer will be the ones without regret in the decades to come.