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The world braces for athlete protests at Tokyo Olympics

So much about race, politics and protest has changed since the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games and the IOC needs to change as well

Will it happen at the starting line? On the mat? In the pool? Atop the medal stand? Maybe at the opening ceremonies, forcing the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to immediately reckon with the ramifications of its threat to punish athletes for demonstrating against racial injustice in Tokyo?

It’s likely that at least one athlete will defy IOC rules against protesting during the Games, which open Friday. The question of what might happen, and what the punishment could be, is adding another layer of tension to an already problematic Olympics.

“Without a doubt, somebody is going to make a statement,” predicted John Carlos, who carved his name into history on the medal stand in Mexico City in 1968 by raising a black-gloved fist along with U.S. teammate Tommie Smith.

It could be hammer thrower Gwen Berry, who raised a fist on the medal stand at the 2019 Pan American Games and turned away from the American flag in June while accepting a medal at the U.S. Olympic trials. It could be fencer Race Imboden, who took a knee at the 2019 Pan American Games. It could be soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who last year vowed, “We will not be silenced.” It could be Noah Lyles, who runs with a black glove on one hand and raised a fist at the starting line at the Olympic trials in June. Lyles is a favorite to win gold in Tokyo in the 200-meter dash – the same race Carlos ran in 1968.

Noah Lyles of the United States crosses the finish line to win the men’s 200-meter dash during the Herculis EBS Monaco Diamond League meeting at Stade Louis II on Aug. 14, 2020, in Monaco.

Daniel Cole/Pool via Getty Images

Carlos won bronze, and Smith took the gold. After their protest, they were expelled from the Olympic Village, vilified by U.S. Olympic officials and the media, and blackballed for decades from athletic and professional opportunities. Carlos is now recognized as a hero of the civil rights movement and is part of the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice, which has pushed the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) to support athletes who express their freedom of speech during competition.

If athletes protest in Tokyo, some IOC officials “are going to come after them, try to make a mockery of them,” Carlos said in an interview. “The difference is, 53 years ago they could mislead people. I don’t think they can lead people as blindly now as they did 53 years ago.”

Berry told CNN she had not decided what to do in Tokyo: “It depends on how I’m feeling. It depends on what I want to do in that moment, and what I want to do for my people in that moment. And I will do whatever comes upon me and whatever is in my heart.” Imboden, a white athlete whose activism has been inspired by mass shootings and police violence against Black people, also declined to disclose his plans. “Protests are based around breaking rules,” he told me by telephone from the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “And if I feel like it’s necessary or I feel the need to speak up, or I want to speak up, then I will, and I would face the consequences.”

As much as some like to pretend that sports can or should exist separately from the world’s problems, the Olympics have always served as a stage to call out injustice. And you can’t remove politics from an event that separates competitors by nationality and keeps a tally of which countries win the most medals.

Protests and national conflicts have been part of the modern Olympics almost from the beginning. In 1906, Irish jumper Peter O’Connor was forced to compete as part of the British team, so he scaled the Olympic flagpole carrying the green and gold flag of his country. Jesse Owens’ dominance in 1936 in Berlin rebuked Adolf Hitler’s racist ideology. In 1964, South Africa was barred from the Games because of its racist apartheid government. Carlos and Smith were not the only athletes to protest in 1968 – Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska displayed subtle but powerful resistance as the Soviet anthem played. Eleven Israelis were killed in Munich in 1972 by Palestinian terrorists. Twenty-eight African nations boycotted the 1976 Olympics over apartheid. During the Cold War, the United States refused to compete in Moscow in 1980. Four years later, the Soviet Union boycotted the Los Angeles Games.

Protesters march in front of the metropolitan government building during a demonstration against the forthcoming Tokyo Olympic Games on June 6 in Japan.

Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images

The Games during the 1990s and 2000s were an era of relative athletic silence, when Michael Jordan’s main concern on the Olympic medal stand in 1992 was covering the Reebok logo. But since the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, which were free of racial justice protests, the role of athletes in society has changed.

Five days after the Rio closing ceremonies, quarterback Colin Kaepernick first spoke publicly about refusing to stand for the national anthem to protest racial injustice. A month earlier, Jordan said he could no longer stay silent about police violence against Black people. Last year, athletes freed the innocent and helped swing a presidential election. And when George Floyd was murdered by police during the summer of 2020, athletes were prominent voices in the new civil rights movement.

In 2019, the USOPC reprimanded Berry and Imboden and placed them on probation after the Pan American Games. Then 2020 happened, and like so many other American institutions, the USOPC was forced to change and allowed American athletes to protest.

If athletes do decide to protest in Tokyo, it would take an extraordinary amount of bravery to do so at the opening ceremonies and risk being sent home without competing, after years of training.

But the Olympics are governed by the IOC, which declared in April that athletes taking a knee, raising a fist or wearing something with a racial justice message would be punished under the long-standing Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter. The rule states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

Advocating for racial justice and human rights is not “propaganda.” And while freedom of speech in America is not supposed to be subject to the dictates of the majority, the IOC said its decision was based on a poll of 3,500 athletes that showed most did not want protests.

The review was led by Kirsty Coventry, head of the IOC Athletes’ Commission and a white former Olympic swimming champion from the liberated British colony now known as Zimbabwe. She had previously compared a Black Lives Matter protest with a demonstration for white supremacy. She promised that athletes who protest would be punished, but did not say exactly how. “I would not want something to distract from my competition and take away from that. That is how I still feel today,” Coventry said.

Coventry’s comments are emblematic of an Olympic hierarchy that consistently does business with governments that violate human rights and enriches its own officials while many athletes need day jobs. This IOC is proceeding with the Games despite Tokyo being under a coronavirus state of emergency and the opposition of most Japanese citizens.

If athletes do decide to protest in Tokyo, it would take an extraordinary amount of bravery to do so at the opening ceremonies and risk being sent home without competing, after years of training. No fans will be at the venues in and around Tokyo due to coronavirus pandemic restrictions, so a strategic protest would be aimed more at TV cameras beaming the Games around the world.

American women on the soccer and basketball teams may be the most likely to make a statement that breaks IOC rules. They have proven themselves to be bold, empathetic, determined and empowered. The soccer team knelt during the national anthem until earlier this year. They also are among the most dominant teams in the world. If they win gold, take collective action on the medal stand and then get expelled, the absurdity of the punishment would call even more attention to the righteousness of their cause.

Imboden said the IOC is interpreting Rule 50 to fight recent athlete empowerment. “The IOC is directly reacting to what’s going on, even though they want to pretend that they’re not changing anything,” he said. “And they’re reacting strongly by saying they don’t want us to have a voice. And that’s because of their sponsorships. That’s because of the money that’s at stake. And that’s because they don’t see us as people. They see us as workers, as people who just show up and we’re supposed to do what we’re told and wear what we’re told to wear. It’s very interesting to see how little the experience really belongs to you, as an Olympian, when it comes down to the IOC rules.” So much about race, politics and protest has changed since the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. So many athletes have gained a greater understanding of their influence, and of their responsibility to use their extraordinary physical gifts to help others. American athletes in particular command the world’s attention, because they hold the most powerful nation on earth accountable while demonstrating the freedom that is the source of American power.

The Olympic Movement aspires to be more than a chase for individual and national glory. For an athlete to reserve space for protest, for helping others, as they reach the Olympic pinnacle is actually one of the highest expressions of the Olympic philosophy of life – an ideal that “places sport at the service of humanity,” expressed through actions that link sports, culture and education.

“Express yourself,” Carlos advised the 2020 Olympians. “If you feel that you love yourself, that you love your humanity, express yourself. Be dignified in what you do, and have a solid understanding so you can express the why, where and what of your demonstration.”

I wanted to ask the IOC if Smith and Carlos were on the right side of history, but the press office declined to provide an interview, instead referring me to a statement allowing athletes to express themselves during interviews or before the start of competition. I wanted to know if the IOC now recognizes that Smith and Carlos raised their fists for human rights, educating the world about sacrifice and the true meaning of equality.

Fifty-three years later, will the IOC again be the villain?

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.