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Athlete protests, once forbidden at the Olympics, have made headlines at this year’s Games, with players from across the globe taking a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Women’s soccer players from Great Britain and Chile kicked off the games by taking a knee to protest the racial discrimination that Black players on England’s national team faced after losing the UEFA European Championship earlier this month. The Japanese women’s soccer team later did the same, a rare act of protest by a Japanese team. Costa Rican gymnast Luciana Alvarado took a knee and put her fist in the air after finishing her floor routine on Sunday.

“This global stage with a global audience is a rare opportunity,” said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport and a professor at the University of Central Florida.

The pickup in demonstrations follows the International Olympic Committee’s recent decision to relax decades-old restrictions on athlete expression meant to maintain neutrality at the games. The amended guidelines in Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter now allow athletes to engage in demonstrations at select times and sites, as long as those actions do not constitute or signal “discrimination, hatred, hostility or the potential for violence.”

The latest actions highlight a longtime paradox for athletes: They are held up as heroes until they use their platforms to make political statements.

That has started to change thanks to National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was sidelined from his job after taking a knee to protest police brutality during the U.S. national anthem at a 2016 game.

But even now, athletes aren’t immune to the consequences of speaking out.

American gymnastics star Simone Biles and Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka both faced criticism for bringing mental health to the fore during this year’s Olympic Games. Osaka also faced criticism from some people on social media after losing a match at the Olympics on Tuesday, with some questioning why she represented Japan as the final torchbearer in the Games’ opening ceremony.

After a year in which social justice protests swept the globe, it’s likely that athletes will continue to use the Games as a platform to advocate for change, said Lapchick. Still, he said the revisions to Rule 50 don’t go far enough and that athletes should be able to protest before competition and during ceremonies.

“The IOC has had a reputation for generations of conservative policies from the very founding of the Olympic Games in 1896 through the Berlin Nazi Olympics and allowing apartheid South Africa to compete for so many years,” he said in an email. “The time has come for the IOC to be on the side of justice.”

A giant mural depicting a protest by U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Games. | AFP-JIJI
A giant mural depicting a protest by U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Games. | AFP-JIJI

At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, the committee’s president ordered that U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos be suspended from their team and the Olympic Village for raising a Black power salute during an awards ceremony. The act of protest came months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. set off race riots in the U.S.

Protests at the Tokyo Olympics have so far largely happened before the start of events. Players from the U.S. and Swedish women’s soccer teams took a knee before their match, while New Zealand’s soccer squad performed the same gesture in a matchup against Australia, whose team held up the flag of the country’s Aboriginal peoples before the game. Costa Rica’s Alvarado has so far been the only athlete to protest in the midst of competition.

Some competitors have used the international stage to protest against aspects of the Games themselves. Athletes from the German women’s gymnastics team elected to wear full-body leotards in lieu of the high-cut ones typically worn by female gymnasts in competition. The German Gymnastics Federation said the outfit selection was intended to fight “sexualization” in the sport.

Olympic athletes are divided on the protest issue, according to the International Olympic Committee. A survey by the group found that while about 40% of athletes said it was appropriate to demonstrate individual political views in the media or at a news conference, about two-thirds were against the same practice on the podium and on the field.

Mathieu Deflem, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina, said the current debate around Olympic protests overlooks the intended neutrality of Rule 50.

Athlete protests are “thought to be a good thing, about justice, about racial justice in particular,” he said in an email. But allowing demonstrations could lead to protests about issues that some might find problematic — and may even turn viewers off from the Olympics and the causes the athletes represent.

“The present discussions on protest are very U.S.-centric, it seems to me,” he said, “though this movement has also found expression in other countries of the world.”

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