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At a time of extraordinary protests and calls for social change and racial justice in the United States and around the world, it’s not difficult to picture hundreds of athletes taking a knee or raising a fist on the medal stand at the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, should those Games take place while we’re in a pandemic.
Such displays are not presently allowed at the Olympics, but international conversations about possible changes are taking place due to the fraught times in which we are living, with the Black Lives Matter movement gaining traction during Donald Trump’s controversial and divisive presidency.
Nearly 52 years ago, at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised an arm in a black-gloved protest on the medal stand during the playing of the U.S. national anthem. They were met with derision and sent home. Now, of course, they are American heroes.
If conventional wisdom tells us the rules are changing and protests just might be allowed should there be an Olympics in 2021, what exactly does that mean?
An arm raised or a knee taken would be agreeable to many. But no props, right? No pins. No flags or banners or T-shirts with messages on them. That could get messy. The medal podium is where athletes who have just achieved the dream of a lifetime go to have their medal placed around their neck and hear the winner’s national anthem. It’s a place of triumph and tears, of reflection and respect. It’s a unique place in sports – a destination, really – that can mean different things to the different athletes from the 206 nations that will be expected in Tokyo.
So, to keep it simple but allow freedom of expression, perhaps we all can agree the International Olympic Committee should allow physical movements or gestures while medals are handed out, flags are raised and the winner’s anthem is played.
Alright then. How about a raised middle finger by, say, an Arab athlete during the Israeli national anthem? Or vice versa? Or by an American athlete angry at the U.S. government’s treatment of Black Lives Matter protesters during the playing of his or her anthem?
Not peaceful, we say. But can we get wholesale agreement on a raised arm being peaceful? That’s doubtful. And having lived through the Colin Kaepernick story for four years, we know that Americans are not in agreement over his protest against racial injustice, even after George Floyd’s death. Throw in 205 other nations and well, good luck.
How about the “okay” symbol, which has been hijacked as a message of white power? How about an athlete refusing to step onto the medal podium entirely as a sign of disrespect for the drug cheat who beat him or her? Or just a simple “thumbs down” by a silver medalist angry at losing to the gold medalist?
Let’s take those in order. “White power” is definitely out; it would be admirable for a cheater to be shown up in such a high-profile way, although that’s a controversial place to do it; and “thumbs down” is not respectful of a fellow competitor, so let’s not allow that one.
But consider this: how respectful is it to take a knee in earnest support of, say, Black Lives Matter if you didn’t win the gold medal? That’s not your anthem playing, yet your silent and polite protest has just drawn all the attention away from the person who won the gold who happened to decide not to kneel. And that spotlight will continue to be on the protester, not the winner, in countless interviews and press conferences long after they’ve left the podium.
It’s a fascinating conversation, which is why the IOC as of now still relies on Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which says, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
But if we see a rash of kneeling early in the Tokyo Games next year, Rule 50 is not going to survive, which is why athletes around the world are in discussion now with Olympic leaders on this very topic.
IOC leaders are quick to point out that Olympic athletes already are able to speak out in many ways. Their access to social media is unfettered, and they can say and do anything in interviews and press conferences before, during and after their events.
This might not sound like much until you consider the case of an athlete who played by these rules last year, not at the Olympics, but in her sport’s biggest international event. She didn’t take a knee during the U.S. anthem or the medal ceremony. She stood at attention, arms behind her back, ramrod straight, while the anthem played.
Yet she is viewed as one of the most influential and successful protesters in sports history. She stood up to Trump and his supporters on social media and in interviews, defying them at every turn. While leading her nation to victory and winning every award she could have won, she gained a tremendous social and cultural platform, giving voice to her causes and concerns to this day.
So if it turns out that the world’s athletes are told they cannot protest on the Olympic medal stand in 2021, they still have their options. Megan Rapinoe has shown them the way.