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On December 10, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) said it would no longer sanction Team USA athletes for peaceful demonstrations. Last year, the USOPC reprimanded hammer thrower Gwen Berry for holding up her fist on the podium at the 2019 Pan American Games. At the same games, fencer Race Imboden took a knee on the podium. The USOPC formally reprimanded them both and put them on probation for a year.
Now, the USOPC has changed its stance. In August, it formed the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice, and when the council recommended ending the prohibition on athletes’ peaceful demonstrations, the USOPC agreed.
“I feel like this proves that USA athletes should be vocal,” Berry says. “We should stand for what’s right, and we should never back down from our moral integrity, because that’s what America is supposed to be.”
Speaking Out Against Rule 50 and Section 2.2
The council called on the International Olympic Committee and International Paralympic Committee to reconsider their respective Rule 50 and Section 2.2, which say that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted” in any Olympic or Paralympic venue. The council—made up of more than 40 athletes, alumni, national governing body representatives, and industry thought leaders—says these rules violate athletes’ rights to free speech and freedom of expression.
“Athletes are saying, ‘Hey, just don’t punish me If I choose to use my voice,’” says Moushaumi Robinson, chair of the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice and a 2004 Olympic gold medalist in the 4×400 relay.
The recommendations state: “The silencing of athletes during the Games is in stark contrast to the importance of recognizing participants in the Games as humans first and athletes second. Prohibiting athletes to freely express their views during the Games, particularly those from historically underrepresented and minoritized groups, contributes to the dehumanization of athletes that is at odds with key Olympic and Paralympic values.”
Along with the ban on demonstration, Rule 50’s guidelines specify that kneeling is not allowed. Doing so targets Black athletes, the council says. “The rule itself defined and disenfranchised and isolated the black U.S. athlete, when they put the verbiage of the different types of demonstrations that were not allowed,” Robinson says.
The council responded to those concerns by recommending “[removing] any coded or suggestive language targeting the rights of specific social groups, including language aimed at silencing racially minoritized members (such as Black athletes) of the Olympic and Paralympic community.”
Robinson also serves on the leadership team of the USOPC Athletes’ Advisory Council, which had already been talking about this issue earlier this year. “As things were happening in our country, we knew that we needed to really continue to push the issue of Rule 50 before the Games came, because it was something that the U.S. team was concerned about,” particularly after Berry was reprimanded, Robinson said. “We wanted athletes to have the freedom to speak.”
Athletes Representing the Real America
Berry has spoken out against racial injustice in the United States. After she raised her fist during the national anthem, she lost sponsors. “I felt unwelcome and unwanted by my country,” she says. “After dealing with all of that, I just felt like I didn’t want to stay in the sport…because if you are representing America, you have to represent the truth of America, good or bad. And I feel like when I did bring awareness to something, nobody wanted to pay attention or hear me out.”
As an Olympic athlete, “you always have to sign a contract to say that you will not protest, you will not bring up any type of issues in your country,” Berry says. “I felt like I was signing away my soul.”
“That made me feel uneasy, because there are a lot of things that are going on in America that people don’t talk about, and people don’t know about,” Berry says. Now that the USOPC has changed its stance, “it’s a big weight lifted off my shoulders,” she says.
The same day the council released its recommendations, USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland acknowledged in a letter to Team USA athletes that the peaceful protests of Berry, Imboden, John Carlos, and Tommie Smith “were met with reprimand or indifference. It is clear now that this organization should have supported instead of condemned, and advocated for understanding instead of relying on previous precedent. For that, I apologize, and look forward to a future where rules are clear, intentions are better understood, and voices are empowered.”
The council includes four steering committees, and the Protests and Demonstrations Steering Committee developed the new recommendations. Among the members of that committee are Imboden and Carlos, who is known for raising his fist in the 1968 Olympics, along with Smith.
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This work has included some difficult conversations, says Tianna Bartoletta, a member of the council and an Olympic gold medalist in the long jump and 4x100m relay. “We don’t often push through the apprehension or the awkwardness of needing to have this conversation with the people in power,” she says. “I’m really pleased that a lot of us who were probably uncomfortable speaking up did so—and not just spoke up into the ether by tweeting or making a post, but directly to the people who had the power to make things happen.”
“A lot of education went into the work in the beginning, so that people could be understood,” Robinson says. “As a Black American female, there are real issues that happen to me off the track that matter.” These difficult conversations included misperceptions about the meaning of a raised fist, which “has historically been used to show unity,” Robinson says. But some people drew a “false equivalency” between a raised fist and a Nazi salute, considering both to be hate speech, Bartoletta says.
Now, the council’s recommendations include: “Clearly distinguish between human rights/social justice protests and instances of hate speech, racist propaganda, and discriminatory remarks aimed at eliminating the rights and dignity of historically marginalized and minoritized populations.”
A Step Forward
About the council’s recommendations, Bartoletta says, “I’m really pleased. And it’s not often that we get to say that, because a lot of times, we end up saying, ‘Yeah, this is progress, but…’ And, of course, there’s always more work to be done.” But this shift changes things for U.S. athletes.
“The overwhelming feeling that we have is pride for our country,” Bartoletta says. “We feel less like minions, who are sent out—especially as the best track team in the world, bringing home the most medals, and not being supported by our own country at all, or not being able to raise awareness about things going on at home.”
Over the years, many women in track and field have used their platform to advocate for racial and social justice, including high jumper Rose Robinson in 1959 and Olympic gold medalist sprinters Wyomia Tyus and Wilma Rudolph in the 1960s.
“As women, we’ve often had so much to say and have not been heard,” Robinson says, adding that several women track and field athletes have messaged her privately about the council’s news. “My response to each of them has been, ‘We did this.’ It was the strength of them. It was watching all of those before me take on issues. It was the Allyson Felixes, the Lauren Fleshmans, the Kara Gouchers, the Tianna Bartolettas, the Gwen Berrys—we’ve all grown up in this sport together,” she says. “I’ve watched us have to really push, in the boardrooms and in some of our committee meetings, and find our voice and push through that space.”
“I’m just happy to have hope,” Bartoletta says. “It’s been a long time coming, but finally being seen, being heard, and taken seriously for something beyond my ability to earn medals for them—that feels really good.”