Stick to sports? Here’s what could happen to Olympians who protest at Tokyo Games

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(NEW YORK) — Since the start of the Olympic Games in 1896, athletes have used the international stage to shine a light on social justice issues.

One of the most iconic protests came from Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter dash in 1968, who each put on a glove and raised a fist in protest of the treatment of Black people in the United States.

Since then, according to sports historians like Jules Boykoff and Louis Moore, the International Olympic Committee has cracked down on protests.

The rule, Article 50, has been reaffirmed by the IOC ahead of the Tokyo Games and states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

In June, a group of high-profile U.S. athletes, including Carlos, sent a letter to the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee asking to eliminate that part of the article, which since been updated to allow for athletes to express their views in specific places and mediums, like when talking to the media, at team meetings or on the field of play prior to competition.

This amendment goes on to say that protests can’t be targeted “directly or indirectly, against people, countries, organizations and/or their dignity,” and “not disruptive.” Their examples of disruptive protests include expressions during another athlete’s or team’s national anthem or introduction.

The IOC said the rule is intended to preserve the neutrality of sports and the neutrality of the Olympics.

“Focus at the Olympic Games must remain on athletes’ performances, sport and the international unity and harmony that the Olympic Movement seeks to advance,” the IOC’s Athlete’s Commission states on the Article 50 guidelines. “It is a fundamental principle that sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference.”

But Moore, a historian from Grand Valley State University, said that for marginalized groups, it’s impossible to separate the Olympics from politics.

“The Olympics in itself is political,” Moore said. “The United States has participated in the Jim Crow society. It’s these athletes that are going to the Olympics with USA across their chest, and they’re coming back as second-class citizens. Let’s say they don’t speak up — but they’re still going with an intent of proving something.”

Athletes who protest may face consequences or disciplinary actions, although the IOC did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment on what specific punishments may look like.

Protests of the past

One of the earliest protests occurred in 1906, when Peter O’Connor, an Irish track athlete, traveled to Greece with his Irish flag in hand. However, a technicality in the rules meant that since Ireland didn’t have an Olympic Council, Irish athletes would be competing for the English.

When he placed second in the long jump, England’s Union Jack was set to wave over O’Connor on the podium. But instead, O’Connor scaled a flag pole and replaced the Union Jack with Ireland’s “Erin go Bragh” flag. Down below, his fellow Irish athletes protected him from security.

In 1968, Smith and Carlos were suspended and expelled from the games for their protest. The two also didn’t wear shoes on the podium, and instead wore black socks to represent poverty in the Black community.

Smith, Carlos and Peter Norman, the Australian second-place winner of the 200-meter race who supported their movement, all wore the badges of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. The group, established by sociologist Harry Edwards, was created to spotlight inequality and injustice.

Smith and Carlos were blacklisted, and the backlash took a toll on their personal and professional relationships, according to Boykoff, the historian.

“They paid a real price for their athlete activism,” Boykoff added. “Both found it difficult to find work when they came back to the United States.”

Another track athlete, Wyomia Tyus, also was a part of the activist organization and protested at the Mexico City Games. Instead of wearing her proper team uniform, she sported black shorts in the Olympic 100-meter final. It was her way of silently protesting racial injustice in the U.S.

Also at the 1986 Games, Věra Čáslavská, a Czechoslovakian gymnast, turned her head away from the Soviet flag during the medal ceremony in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia shortly before the Games. Čáslavská fled the country as an outspoken critic of the Soviet regime.

In 2012, Damien Hooper, an Indigenous boxer from Australia, wore a T-shirt with the Aboriginal flag into the ring for a match at the London Games.

The IOC slammed the Australian Olympic Committee for his actions since the rules prohibit the use of flags that are not official country flags — and he later apologized.

In 2016, Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms above his head as he crossed the finish line — a gesture used by the Oromo people, who are have suffered mass killings at the hands of Ethiopian police, according to Human Rights Watch.

As the Olympics — scheduled from July 23 to Aug. 8 — near, many have their eye on what protests will look like following a recent racial reckoning in the U.S.

In a movement widely credited to beginning anew with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, athletes across several U.S. professional sports leagues have protested against social injustices and systemic racism.

Kaepernick and players from the WNBA, NBA, MLB and NHL have protested by taking a knee during the national anthem, staging team-wide strikes and wearing protest garb, including T-shirts emblazoned with “SAY HER NAME,” referring to Breonna Taylor.

Protests anticipated in Tokyo

Gwen Berry, a track and field athlete who turned away from the American flag at the U.S. Olympic Trials as the national anthem was played, already has received backlash for her silent protest on the podium.

“I never said that I hated the country,” Berry told Black News Channel in an interview. “All I said was, I respect my people enough to not stand or acknowledge something that disrespects them.”

Berry considers herself an “activist athlete” and has made several peaceful demonstrations against systemic racism at competitions.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki spoke on President Joe Biden’s behalf, in support of her actions:

“I know [Biden] is incredibly proud to be an American and has great respect for the anthem and all that it represents,” Psaki said. “He would also say that part of that pride in our country means recognizing there are moments where we, as a country, haven’t lived up to our highest ideals, and means respecting the right of people granted in the Constitution to peacefully protest.”

Several Republicans, including Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, have spoken out against Berry and other athletes who may protest at the Olympics.

“We don’t need any more activist athletes,” Crenshaw said on “Fox and Friends.” “She should be removed from the team. The entire point of the Olympic team is to represent the United States of America.”

Moore said that Black athletes have long been criticized and suppressed when it came to expressing their beliefs, and that he believes efforts to silence Berry just show how powerful her message is.

“She is officially the voice of this moment,” Moore said. “That’s the most powerful part about that is that a Black woman is holding court — she has the world’s attention.”

However, historians and sports analysts say that sports can be a tool for dialogue, and that athletes have been great forces in calling attention to issues of injustice and inequality.

“A lot of sports fans consider themselves apolitical and so they have to confront certain elements of society that they might not otherwise confront through sports,” Boykoff said. “Sports can be an important entry point for people to have conversations about politics that they’d otherwise never have.”

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