USOPC gives the green light to athletes protesting during the Olympics

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) caved to American athletes who wish to turn their performance into a social justice protest. Thursday the committee announced it will not sanction athletes who raise a fist or kneel on the medals stand at next year’s Tokyo Games.

Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice recommended to the USOPC that the prohibition on athletes to peacefully protest and demonstrate be removed. This relates to Rule 50 and Section 2.2 to the International Olympic Committee and International Paralympic Committee. The recommendation was in response to athletes who protest against racial and social injustices and want to promote human dignity through global sport. “It calls for the IOC and IPC to update guidelines to allow for peaceful actions that specifically advocate for human rights and racial and social justice, and distinguishes those acts from to-be-defined “divisive demonstrations” – including, but not limited to, currently prohibited acts of hate speech, racist propaganda, political statements and discrimination.”

The Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice was formed in September to make recommendations to the USOPC. The council consists of four committees, including the Protests and Demonstrations Steering Committee. That’s right – protests and demonstrations by athletes have their own committee. It’s 2020 and Black Lives Matter dominates all cultural events, whether it is a sports competition or a television show. The message is that white people are oppressors and wish harm to minorities, especially police officers. That line of thought is the basis for the defund the police movement. The steering committee is prioritizing the rights of athletes to protest during an international sporting competition.

The Protests and Demonstrations Steering Committee, one of four committees that constitutes the Council, was charged with assessing current policies and offering options in relation to protests and demonstrations at the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Since its inception in September, the steering committee worked in collaboration with representatives from the athlete community, AAC, National Governing Bodies, U.S. Olympians & Paralympians Association, USOPC, and industry and academic thought leaders. The committee gathered data and qualitative input, including an analysis of the opinions of Team USA athletes, and conducted an evaluation of historical and current academic publications about human rights.

“The Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice provided its recommendation to the USOPC, NGBs, IOC and IPC in an effort to show the power and duty athletes have to build a more inclusive world through sport,” said Moushaumi Robinson, 2004 Olympic gold medalist in track and field, AAC leadership member and chair of the Council. “The Council believes the diversity of Team USA athletes is our strength, and that this recommendation can be a catalyst for change.”

In 1968 two Olympic sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, were sent back home after raising their fists on the medals stand in protest of racial inequality in the U.S. Rule 50 of the IOC Olympic Charter prohibits inside-the-lines protests at the games. Athletes have protested in the years since 1968, of course, and the frequency of such protests has increased, especially during recent years as public demonstrations against social injustice have increased. Now protests and demonstrations are seen as a part of the job for many athletes.

“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,” said the athlete statement that accompanied the recommendations.

The athletes seek changes that would bring the policy closer to those in major U.S. and international leagues, most of which relaxed their rules regarding demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death in May at the hands of Minneapolis police and the unrest that ensued. NBA players, for instance, pushed repeatedly for assurances they could use their platform to address social justice issues.

The IOC has maintained that protests have no place in athletics. The United States sends the most money to the Olympics and wins the most medals. Such political statements carry a lot of weight on the international stage because of the exposure they get around the world. U.S. Olympics CEO Sarah Hirshland and the committee want to appear as woke as possible, claiming the world was waiting on its decision. For extra measure, the announcement was made on Human Rights Day. Just last year, though, Hirshland wasn’t sufficiently woke and reprimanded two American athletes for protesting during the Pan-Am Games in Peru.

The USOPC’s CEO, Sarah Hirshland, said she expects criticism from the IOC and others, but “we can’t walk the walk as a movement if we don’t look at this issue, in particular.”

The USOPC decision, which also will apply to Olympic trials, comes in the wake of a 19-month stretch during which its willingness to adhere to the IOC directive became untenable.

In the summer of 2019, Hirshland reprimanded American hammer thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden for violating Rule 50, after Berry raised her fist and Imboden kneeled on the medals stand at the Pan-Am Games in Peru.

Then, during the period of social unrest that followed Floyd’s killing by a white police officer while the Black man was in handcuffs, Berry called out the USOPC for being hypocritical when it announced it would follow the lead of many sports leagues by increasing efforts to address issues of racial inequality in the U.S.

So, here we are. Protests won’t be the exception to normal behavior by Olympians, it will be the norm. It’s malarkey, though, for supporters to say that the protests aren’t political.

“You see athletes in sports leagues becoming aware of the power they have in driving social change,” said Yannick Kluch, a sports culture professor at Rowan University who helped the athletes tackle these issues.

“Often, you hear people saying ‘I don’t want to mix politics with sports,’” Kluch said. “But these are two (false) assumptions. The first is that human rights and race and social justice are political. They’re about human dignity, not politics. It’s also very clear that human rights are not political but have been heavily politicized.”

Would you like some athletic competition with your social justice protests? It looks like you’ll be accommodated from here on out.