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Olympians Are Not Allowed to Demonstrate, But Will They Anyway?

Gwen Berry and Tianna Bartoletta are among the Olympians who disagree with the decision to sanction peaceful demonstrations.

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The International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced on April 21 that it would uphold its ban on peaceful demonstrations and protests, such as raising a fist or kneeling on the podium, at the Olympic Games. Athletes who do so in Tokyo will face sanctions, but how they will be reprimanded remains unclear.

The IOC’s Rule 50 says that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted” at any Olympic venue. But, American athletes have argued, kneeling or raising a fist is not political propaganda.

“It’s literally just basic human rights,” says Gwen Berry, 2016 Olympic hammer thrower who was punished for raising her fist on the podium at the 2019 Pan American Games, where she won the gold medal. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) reprimanded her and put her on probation for a year (meaning more serious sanctions could have resulted from any further breaches of the code of conduct), and she lost sponsors because of it.

But last year, the USOPC changed its stance and said it would stop sanctioning athletes for such demonstrations, after the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice laid out recommendations that allow silent, peaceful demonstrations that advocate for human rights, as well as racial and social justice—and that prohibit demonstrations that diminish others’ rights or humanity. So raising a fist or taking a knee would be permitted; a Nazi salute or “white power” gesture would not.

The Council on Racial and Social Justice asked the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) to reconsider their respective bans, arguing that they violate athletes’ rights to free speech and freedom of expression. The IPC has not indicated whether it will revise its ban.

The council’s request that the IOC change its rule “is not really about permission,” says Tianna Bartoletta, a member of the council and an Olympic gold medalist in the long jump and 4×100-meter relay. “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.’”

The IOC Athletes’ Commission

In upholding its ban, the IOC followed the recommendations of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, which surveyed athletes around the world about this issue between December and January. Of the 3,547 survey participants, 55 percent are Olympians and 45 percent are non-Olympian elite athletes. Seventy percent of the respondents said demonstrating or expressing views on the field of play is not appropriate, 70 percent said doing so at official ceremonies is inappropriate, and 67 percent said doing so on the podium is inappropriate.

For context, more than 11,200 athletes competed at the 2016 Games. So the Olympians included in this survey were 55 percent of 3,547—which is less than 2,000.

After the findings were made public, along with the IOC’s stance that peaceful demonstrations at the Tokyo Games would remain banned, many athletes, including Moushaumi Robinson, a 2004 Olympic gold medalist in the 4×400-meter relay and chair of the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice, questioned who participated in the survey.

“How much racial inequity have they experienced? Do they understand? Have they ever been marginalized or disenfranchised? Do they know what it feels like?” says Robinson.

The Athletes’ Commission stated: “While freedom of speech and expression is a universally recognized fundamental human right, it is not absolute.” It also expressed concern that athletes might be politicized and forced to take a public position on an issue. “[T]he political neutrality of the Olympic Games is a way to protect athletes from political interference or exploitation,” it stated.

The commission asked the Legal Affairs Commission to clarify the range of sanctions that would be imposed for a breach of the rule. The USOPC plans to provide guidance for athletes in Tokyo after it has more information from the IOC.

These Athletes’ Commission recommendations specify some alternatives for athletes’ expression, including a moment of solidarity during the opening ceremony and wearing apparel with the word “equality” on it. Those options are not enough, Berry says.

“You cannot control what I say, how I fight for what I believe in, because you have not lived my life,” she says. “You do not have any idea. So you cannot control my narrative—and then capitalize off of it based on your control.”

But for some athletes, these alternatives are likely to meet their needs, Bartoletta says. “The issue is that somebody else is telling you what’s enough for you,” she says. “That’s where it’s missing the mark.”

Rule 50 specifies kneeling as an impermissible demonstration, and that targets Black athletes, Robinson says. “When you take a look at the rule, it marginalized a certain group of athletes from a certain nation, out of 207 [nations],” she says.

Holding Reverence

Robinson doesn’t consider these silent, peaceful demonstrations as “protests,” and, in fact, they align with the Olympic spirit.

“It’s holding reverence. It’s just a moment of honor, to say, ‘You know what, I didn’t come this far without people who came before me that have had to go through some things. And I’m taking the time to acknowledge that,’” she says.

The Council on Racial and Social Justice has said that prohibiting these demonstrations dehumanizes athletes in a way that conflicts with Olympic and Paralympic values. Athletes who demonstrate are bringing awareness to problems that matter to them.

“For some athletes, the Olympics is the only place where somebody is going to listen to them. When we are using our bodies as entertainment or sport, that’s the only time some of us experience respect and integrity,” Bartoletta says. So telling athletes who have made it to this point that they can’t demonstrate tells them, “Your journey here is not important enough to disrupt the image we want to portray to the world.”

Robinson agrees, noting that her skin color affects her daily existence.

“Being brown or Black has an effect on things that are happening to me in the United States of America, on this land, day to day where I live,” she says.

The Olympics is by far the biggest stage and platform most athletes will ever have—and it’s important to them to use the moment and the spotlight for something meaningful.

“It’s not that we’re not proud of what we represent. It’s just that we have to fix some things—we have to recognize some atrocities that are happening to people in our country,” Robinson says.

At the Olympic Trials

At the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials, scheduled for June 18-27 in Eugene, Oregon, as well as the Paralympic Trials, athletes can demonstrate without fear of punishment.

On March 30, the USOPC issued guidance, specifying that athletes may raise a fist or kneel at the start line or on the podium, or wear a hat with phrases such as “Black Lives Matter” or “Trans Lives Matter” on it. Wearing apparel with hate symbols, making a gesture affiliated with a hate group, violent protests that hurt others or cause damage, and “protests aimed explicitly against a specific organization, person or group of people” are not permitted.

Robinson notes the importance of having the IPC at the table for conversations about demonstrations, “because it goes back to marginalization and disenfranchisement,” she says. “We have Black and brown-skinned Paralympians who this very much affects. And it doesn’t just affect Black and brown-skinned people—it affects all individuals who want to speak on racial inequity and social inequity and not be punished.”

Also, because oppression isn’t unique to the U.S., athletes around the world should be able to speak out, Berry says.

Bartoletta points out that not all athletes advocating for social justice will use their Olympic platform to demonstrate. “As exhausted as we all are for a bunch of different reasons, some of us will choose this battle, and some of us won’t,” she says. “The point is, you should be allowed to choose your own battle.”

The implications of who is granted the opportunity to quietly demonstrate in which arenas extends beyond athletes, of course. Robinson says that allowing those who have been disenfranchised and marginalized for centuries to use their platforms to acknowledge it may help change behavior and offer perspective.

“And we can get to a global understanding of how to be better,” she says, “because there’s power in peace, not the other way around.”