Sebastian Coe stood at the edge of the track at Tokyo’s new National Stadium on Thursday. Dressed in a blue suit and speaking in a light drizzle, he repeated his support for the right of athletes to advocate for social or racial justice at next year’s postponed Tokyo Olympics.
“I’ve been very clear that if an athlete chooses to take the knee on a podium, then I’m supportive of that,” Coe said, giving a boost to Black Lives Matter protests and other social- and racial-justice movements that are determined to use Tokyo as a stage.
Coe is speaking out in direct opposition to Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter that says “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
Coe is not just any voice. He’s an International Olympic Committee member, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the head World Athletics, the world governing body of track and field.
He also headed the 2012 London Olympics.
“Athletes are a part of the world and they want to reflect the world they live in,” Coe said. “For me, that part is perfectly acceptable as long as it is done with respect — complete respect — for other competitors, which I think most athletes properly understand.”
Coe’s comments are contrary to official IOC policy. Earlier this year, the IOC said it was opening dialogue with athletes on the issue.
The Tokyo Games had to be postponed to 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Thursday marked the first time Coe has visited the new National Stadium, which is scheduled to host the opening and closing ceremonies and athletics events, since it was completed last December.
Coe is in the Japanese capital on a courtesy visit to Tokyo Olympics organizers. He met with Tokyo 2020 president Yoshiro Mori and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike.
Tokyo is also the headquarters of giant advertising company Dentsu Inc., which has been a major backer of World Athletics.
Coe pitched Tokyo as a possible venue for a future World Athletics world championship. Tokyo held the worlds in 1991, and Osaka was the host city in 2007.
“We don’t know what will happen in the next few months,” Coe said. “We are absolutely committed to work with the organizing committee for the delivery of a fantastic games. There may have to be some adaptations. There may need to be some differences. But I’m absolutely convinced that even under those circumstances they will still be fantastic games.”
World Athletics has also sent a team to Sapporo, which will host the marathon and race walking events, to aid organizers in developing COVID-19 precautions.
“This isn’t about coming for any assurances,” Coe stressed. “It is to restate our commitment to working very closely with the organizing committee here to share our learnings … we are in complete collaboration.”