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  • Top Story Replay -- OpEd: Protestors Will Test Tokyo Olympics


    (ATR) The IOC has given a green light for athletes to speak their minds at the Tokyo Olympics.

    The IOC Athletes Commission issued the Rule 50 advice. (IOC)
    Guidance issued last week by the IOC on where and when athletes can exercise their free speech during the Olympics is the most explicit advice the IOC has ever provided to athletes ahead of the Games. The three-page advisory also covers exceptions where protests and demonstrations are not allowed.

    Allowed: during interviews and press conferences in mixed zones, Main Press Center and International Broadcast Center, team meetings and on social media platforms.

    Not allowed: in the Olympic Village, field of play, during ceremonies.

    None of this is new, covered by the long-standing Rule 50 in the Olympic Charter that was in effect when Tommie Smith and John Carlos jolted the world with their medal ceremony black power salutes in Mexico City in 1968.

    The two men were sent home by the U.S. Olympic Committee under pressure from the IOC to enforce Rule 50. Back in the U.S. the two were subjects of ire or admiration, depending on one’s politics.

    Tommie Smith and John Carlos were inducted into the the U.S. Olympic Hall of fame in 2019. (USOPC)
    Now they are revered for their protest. Statues pay them tribute. In 2019 they were inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee Hall of Fame. But these late in life awards from the same organization that sanctioned two men more than 50 years ago exposes the hypocrisy of it all.

    It should be noted that the IOC has yet to memorialize Carlos and Smith the way they’ve been treated by the USOPC. To do otherwise would empty the meaning of rule 50, which bans any “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda.”

    But the IOC had to look the other way in 2002 when President George W. Bush went rogue with his statement to officially open the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Speaking just five months after the 9/11 attacks and eager to use patriotism as a salve, Bush could not resist breaking protocol when he stepped to the microphone at the opening ceremony.

    "On behalf of a proud, determined and grateful nation, I declare open the Games of Salt Lake City, celebrating the Winter Olympic Games,” was Bush’s declaration. He was only supposed to say “I declare open the Games of Salt Lake City, celebrating the Winter Olympic Games.”

    Yes, IOC members felt their feathers ruffle. But what gain would there be in nit-picking the U.S. president? And since it would be up to the USOC to pursue any criticism, the appetite for a squabble with the White House was faint.

    Faint-of-heart does not apply to U.S. women’s soccer great Megan Rapinoe.

    Rapinoe (2nd from left) has protested during the US national anthem since 2016.
    “We will not be silenced” she writes on her Instagram site about the IOC guidance. What that will mean in July when she and her teammates take the field in Japan remains to be seen. Rapinoe typically has taken a knee without consequence when the U.S. national anthem was played in World Cup matches.

    “So much being done about the protests. So little being done about what we are protesting about,” she posts.

    Athlete advocacy Global Athlete says the IOC has already politicized sport. Athletes should not be told how to behave by the IOC says a statement from the group.

    “Athletes devote years of their lives to qualify for the Olympic Games. If athletes want to speak up - in which they respect others rights and freedoms detailed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - we should embrace their diverse opinions. Silencing athletes should never be tolerated and to threaten them with removal from the Olympic Games is another sign of the imbalance of power between sport leaders and athletes,” says Global Athlete.

    IOC President Thomas Bach says adherence to the restrictions of Rule 50 is about preserving the unity of the Olympic Games.

    “If this political neutrality is not respected, then the Olympic Games will divide, and not unite, the world,” Bach said last week as the guidelines were published.

    As certain are the do’s and don’ts of the guidelines, the penalties for violations are not prescribed. And breaches of the code will be handled on a case-by-case basis by national Olympic committees or international federations, not the IOC.

    If history is any clue, it’s the USOPC that is most likely to deal with the fallout of athlete protests. U.S. athletes -- empowered by constitutional protection -- are the most outspoken.

    Gwen Berry of the US during the hammer throw medal ceremony at Pan Am Games. (Lima 2019)
    In 1968 it was Smith and Carlos. In 2019 at the Pan Am Games in Lima, U.S. fencer Race Imboden took a knee during a medal ceremony. Hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised a clenched fist during her ceremony. The USOPC gave them each 12 months probation -- a tap on the wrist.

    The Tokyo Olympics will coincide with the U.S. presidential election, and that could be a potential flashpoint for athletes such as Rapinoe, who is a fervent opponent of Donald Trump. Hot button issues will emerge in the coming months that inspire other reasons to protest.

    Imagine an Olympic Games that give a carte blanche to political expression and protest. There could be chaos on the podium, a dismantling of the protocol that allows Olympians to hear the accolades they deserve.

    The IOC has the right to make the rules. But without sanctions those rules are meaningless.

    For the athletes at odds with government, discrimination or other just moral cause, acceptable avenues to express themselves at the Olympics appear to be plentiful.

    To break the rules becomes civil disobedience, a force that has changed nations around the world. For those willing to step over the line to challenge the status quo, accepting the punishment with nobility may be just as important as the cause they are advocating.

    Homepage photo: Wikimedia Commons

    Reported by Ed Hula. For general comments or questions, click here.
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