By STEPHEN WILSON
Let’s assume, for now, that the postponed Tokyo Olympic Games will take place next summer in one form or another.
That’s still a big if, in view of the continuing challenges posed by the global Covid-19 pandemic. But the IOC and Tokyo organizers are still planning for the Games to go ahead from July 23 to Aug. 8, 2021, and any decision to reconsider those plans won’t need to be made until months from now.
Major League Soccer (MLS) players support Black Lives Matter. (Twitter @NewYorkRedBulls)
There’s another issue dominating world headlines at the moment that also looms large over the next Olympics: the protests triggered by the death of George Floyd in police custody and, most recently, the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The Black Lives Matter movement and the wider demands for racial and social justice have moved squarely into the sports domain, prompting boycotts and strikes across professional leagues in the United States and leading athletes to speak out as never before.
The NBA, WNBA, Major League Baseball, NHL, NFL, MLS and pro tennis were all impacted, as teams, coaches and players took a stand against the latest case of police violence toward an unarmed Black man.
The Intersection of Politics and Sports
Stick to sports. Shut up and dribble. Keep politics out of sports.
All those axioms have been blown out of the water by the racial reckoning raging across America and other parts of the world, too.
Four years after Colin Kaepernick caused an uproar by kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games, an act that effectively saw him blackballed from the league, protests by athletes have become routine and almost expected.
Athletes are saying: Enough! We won’t stand by silently. We will make our voices heard.
NBA players are wearing customized jerseys with social justice messages on the back including “Black Lives Matter,’’ “I Can’t Breathe,” “Peace,’’ ‘’Equality,” “Liberation,” “Freedom,” “Enough,” “Stand Up,” and “Say Their Names.”
Two-time Grand Slam tennis champion Naomi Osaka arrived at the U.S. Open with seven face masks each bearing the name of a victim of violence. For her first-round match, she wore a black mask with the name of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman shot to death by police in March in Louisville, Kentucky.
Naomi Osaka wearing Breonna Taylor mask at U.S. Open. (Twitter @naomiosaka)
“I’m aware that tennis is watched all over the world and maybe there is someone that doesn’t know Breonna Taylor’s story,’’ said Osaka, who was born in Japan to a Haitian father and Japanese mother.
Before the U.S. Open, Osaka refused to play a semifinal match of the Western & Southern Open after Blake was shot in the back seven times by a white policeman in Kenosha. Blake is reportedly paralyzed from the waist down.
It’s notable that Osaka is one of Japan’s biggest sports stars and figures to be one of the faces of the Tokyo Games, as well one of her country’s biggest medal hopes.
This is where the Olympic Movement is coming under intense pressure and scrutiny.
Rule 50 Versus Athletes' Activism
Fifty-two years after U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved fists on the medal podium in Mexico City, the issue of athlete protests at the Olympic Games has come to the fore with new urgency and relevance.
At the center of the debate is the IOC’s long-standing Rule 50, which states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
The NBA players’ jerseys and Osaka’s name-bearing masks would seemingly be prohibited at the Games as the IOC rule currently stands. Taking a knee on the podium would definitely be out.
The IOC Athletes’ Commission is currently consulting with athlete groups around the world about the rule, which is intended to protect the neutrality of sport and the Olympic Games. The commission said it wants to “explore additional ways’’ in which athletes can express their views during the Games “while respecting the Olympic spirit.”
In January, before George Floyd’s death and subsequent protests, the commission issued Rule 50 guidelines reminding athletes they were free to express their views in mixed zones, interviews, press conferences and on social media – so long as these were “respectful and in line with the Olympic values.”
The commission also cited examples of what would constitute violations of Rule 50: displaying any political messaging, including signs or armbands; gestures of a political nature, such as a hand gesture or kneeling; and refusal to follow the protocol for opening and closing ceremonies.
Violations can lead to disciplinary action on a case-by-case basis, the guidelines said.
Following the ongoing round of consultations, the Athletes’ Commission plans to submit its first report to the IOC Executive Board in December and make final recommendations in the first quarter of 2021.
Meanwhile, the Global Athlete group has criticized the IOC commission’s consultations as flawed and an “inadequate response.” It has called for Rule 50 to be scrapped, contending the rule denies athletes their universal human rights.
“Athletes have had to choose between competing in silence and standing up for what’s right for far too long,’’ Global Athlete said. “It is time for change. Every athlete must be empowered to use their platforms, gestures and voice. Silencing the athlete voice has led to oppression, silence has led to abuse, and silence has led to discrimination in sport.”
“Athletes are influencers,’’ the group said, “but they can only fight social injustice and assist in making the world a better place if their freedom of speech is protected, not punished.”
LA 2028 chairman Casey Wasserman (ATR)
Casey Wasserman, chairman of the Los Angeles 2028 organizing committee, has publicly called on the IOC to amend the rule to allow for athlete action against racism.
“I don’t believe anti-racist speech is political speech,’’ he told reporters on the day LA2028 released its new digital logo. “I believe it is a political standard we all need to be operating on.”
Wasserman said he has written to IOC President Thomas Bach outlining his views and the need to reform the rule.
“I urge President Bach to be both thoughtful and aggressive in moving toward that result,” he said.
“While the rule probably exists for a reason, the times are different and, I think, the rule requires adjusting, which allows for anti-racist speech within the Olympic and Paralympic platform.”
Should the Podium be Off-Limits?
Protesting on the medal podium remains the thorniest issue. As Smith and Carlos showed, the victory stand provides the most high-profile platform for athletes to protest.
But allowing podium protests can raise a number of problems. One athlete’s protest can overshadow or spoil the moment of glory for the others on the podium. The Olympics involve athletes from more than 200 countries, all with different political and social system and issues of their own. Racial discrimination can take different forms in different parts of the world.
Dick Pound, the IOC’s longest-serving member, is a firm believer that the medal podium should remain free of any form of protest.
“What we should be doing at the Olympic Games is celebrating the fact that you have 206 countries and athletes representing all colors, races and religions on the planet all living together in peaceful surroundings and competing in ethically based sports competition,’’ he said in a telephone interview. “That should be celebrated. It shouldn’t be a negative protest.’’
IOC doyen Dick Pound (ATR)
Pound said athletes can make their case on social issues more effectively by waiting until after the medal ceremony to speak in interviews and press conferences.
“I think athletes who start to think about these things get it,’’ he said. “Your right to protest and draw attention to social issues is not abrogated. It just means you have to wait five minutes until the end of the ceremony and go to the press conference and say whatever you want.’’
“If somebody takes a knee,’’ Pound said, “you’ll never know if you’re watching on TV or from the stands if it’s actually about racial discrimination or about fluoride in the water. It’s inarticulate.”
The Black Lives Matter protests may not resonate in other parts of the world as much as in the United States, he said.
“All the oxygen is being taken up by the George Floyd incident these days,’’ Pound said. “There’s all kinds of different discrimination that doesn’t result from police brutality. There’s a different dynamic.’’
He said the IOC consultations with athletes and NOCs will find those who say: “Wait a minute. What if I win something and everybody else on the podium is rolling around in some kind of protest? That’s not right either.”
“There’s a time and a place for everything,” Pound added. “You have all kinds of human rights and you don’t go shouting about those things at a church service or at a funeral. If you’re asked to wait five or 10 minutes out of respect for your fellow athletes, your human rights really are not infringed.”
Pound suggested that Bach use his speech at the opening ceremony to appeal for an end to all forms of discrimination across the globe.
“He could say something to the effect of, ‘We’re here celebrating this miracle in this little bubble for two weeks. We’re very conscious that not all discrimination has been solved around the world. We call on the governments and people around the world to commit to ending discrimination.’ That I think would be appropriate.”
The sharp debate over Rule 50 and Olympic protests is sure to continue in the months ahead. The IOC will be hard pressed to find a solution that satisfies everyone.
Stephen Wilson is the former Olympics correspondent and European Sports Editor for The Associated Press and former president of the Olympic Journalists Association. Contact him at email@example.com
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