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Rowbottom: IOC Shouldn’t Think it Can “Switch Off” Athlete Protests at Tokyo 2020

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A USOPC spokesperson confirmed fencer Race Imboden, pictured kneeling, and hammer thrower Gwen Berry had been reprimanded for their actions at the event in the Peruvian capital. Photo: Race Imboden

By Mike Rowbottom |

If the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics do take place next summer it will mean, one would fervently hope, that the COVID-19 pandemic has been controlled, if not eradicated. And if so, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) needs to gird itself.

For there will surely be more personal protests and gestures of solidarity from athletes over the racial inequalities that have been around for a very much longer time than coronavirus, and which are currently inflamed in the United States, and the wider world, following the recent killing of a black man – George Floyd – in the course of arrest by Minneapolis police officers.

Back in January, the IOC President Thomas Bach warned athletes against protesting in any form at the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Following a joint meeting of the IOC Executive Board and the Athletes’ Commission, specific guidelines were added to the IOC’s Rule 50 – which states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas” – for competitors at the Olympic Games.

The document specifically prohibited protests and demonstrations at “all Olympic venues”, including medal ceremonies, the field of play and the Olympic Village.

That marker came in response to protests from athletes at major sports events last year, including the Pan American Games in Lima and the World Aquatics Championships in Gwangju.

The latter involved swimmers refusing to take the podium alongside Sun Yang over his doping record – China’s multiple world and Olympic champion was subsequently banned for eight years for a serious violation.

The former saw fencer Race Imboden, an Olympic bronze medallist, kneeling during the American national anthem and calling for change in the US, citing racism, gun control, mistreatment of immigrants and opposition to President Donald Trump.

Later at those Games, US hammer throwing gold medallist Gwen Berry staged her own protest, raising her right fist at the conclusion of her medal ceremony.

That directly echoed perhaps the most potent example of a political protest at a sporting event, involving US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the respective gold and bronze medallists in the 200 metres at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

As they took to the podium, Smith and Carlos were both shoeless but wearing black socks – something they later explained was to represent black poverty. 

Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride, Carlos had his tracksuit top undone to show solidarity with all blue collar workers in the US and also wore a necklace of beads which he subsequently described as being “for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred”.

As the Star Spangled Banner anthem played, both men bowed their heads and raised their gloved fist.

All three on the podium, including silver medallist Peter Norman, who had been a critic of Australia’s former White Australia Policy, wore Olympic Project for Human Rights badges.

When they left the podium they were booed by the crowd. Smith later said: “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”

The US National Olympic Committee was leaned upon by the IOC – whose American President, Avery Brundage, later referred to the incident as “the nasty demonstration against the American flag by negroes” – to suspend the athletes and send them home. 

US athletes were warned in Mexico: “A repetition of such incidents…would warrant the imposition of the severest penalties at the disposal of the US Olympic Committee.”

But, guess what? Subsequent protests of varying degrees did take place at those Games. 

And the same issues that provoked them remain in large part today. Will they have vanished in a year’s time? No. Nor will other pressing issues that have engaged and enraged sportsmen and women in a world where there is a proliferation of platforms for views to be aired.

In the space of the last week, the idea that sport and politics can co-exist separately has been profoundly refuted, yet again, by a series of protests, warnings and messages of support from athletes past and present in the wake of the latest crisis.

Yesterday 20-year-old Londoner Jadon Sancho, the England football international playing in Germany, marked the first of three goals for Borussia Dortmund by taking off his shirt to reveal a t-shirt with the words: “Justice for George Floyd”. For which he received a yellow card from the referee.

After the game, Sancho took to social media to reflect on the “bittersweet moment” of his first career hat-trick.

“We shouldn’t fear speaking out for what’s right, we have to come together as one and fight for justice,” he said. “We are stronger together!”

Earlier in the day, French forward Marcus Thuram had marked his two goals in a 4-1 win by Borussia Moenchengladbach over Union Berlin by kneeling in tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement.

While these two athletes will not be appearing at the Olympics, one who surely will and one who very well might – tennis players Naomi Osaka of Japan and Coco Gauff of the US – have made their feelings over the crisis vividly clear.

Osaka, the Florida-based 22-year-old who won the 2018 US Open and 2019 Australian Open titles, is one of the main poster attractions of next year’s home Olympics, while Gauff, 16, is being widely proclaimed as the next big talent to dominate the women’s game.

Osaka took pictures of the memorial that has been set up for Floyd and stood with those protesting against his death, captioning one photo: “Just because it isn’t happening to you doesn’t mean it isn’t happening at all.”

Gauff was among those responding to Osaka’s Instagram comments, having earlier posted a TikTok video that also found its way onto Twitter. This shows her wearing a hoodie and is captioned “this is why I am using my voice to fight against racism”.

After listing a number of black people killed in police custody, she asked: “Am I next?”

Ex-athletes, too, are making their voices heard.

Yesterday, basketball legend Michael Jordan tweeted a statement on the current crisis which includes the message that his “heart goes out to the family of George Floyd and to the countless others whose lives have been brutally and senselessly taken through acts of racism and injustice”. 

Earlier today Chris Lambert, Britain’s 2004 Olympic sprinter who set three Ivy League records representing Harvard University, posted an eloquent and extended “Letter To My White Friends” which concludes with the following sentence: “We don’t inherit our oppression from our parents, we inherit it from your silence.”

Protest, by athletes of any colour, cannot be “switched off” for the Olympics.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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