U.S. Olympics received’t punish athletes for social justice protests
Known as Rule 50 in the IOC’s Olympic Charter, the controversial provision has been examined and the IOC commissioned its Athletes Commission that year to investigate possible changes. The USOPC has also focused on the issue after facing heavy criticism for reprimanding two American athletes who protested at the Pan American Games in August 2019.
This spring, when social unrest erupted across the country in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer, USOPC set up a task force to deal with Rule 50 and social and racial justice issues. The result was a four-page statement sent to the IOC on Wednesday and released on Thursday. The group claims that the IOC’s current rules “violate athletes’ rights to freedom of expression and expression”.
“The retirement of athletes during the Games is in stark contrast to the importance of recognizing participants in the Games as people first and then as athletes,” the group wrote. “Banning athletes from freely expressing their views during the Games, especially historically underrepresented and inferior groups, is contributing to the dehumanization of athletes, which is contrary to core Olympic and Paralympic values.”
An IOC spokesman declined to comment, referring instead to a statement by Kirsty Coventry, chairman of the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission. She said that while the group’s Rule 50 study is ongoing, the “majority” of athletes so far emphasize “the right to freedom of expression” and “express their support for the maintenance of the ceremonies, the podium and the field”.
“While within the current Rule 50 there are many opportunities for athletes to express their opinion at the time of the games, whether in press conferences, interviews, on social media or in team meetings, the purpose of ongoing consultation by the IOC [athletes’ commission] is to find creative solutions and make sure the recommendations are fully informed, ”she said.
Athlete protests have been hotly debated throughout the Olympic world this year, and some IOC leaders have met opposition. While the IOC has repeatedly stated that protests are not part of Olympic venues, on the field of play or on a medal podium, the organization has begun exploring other ways athletes can use their platforms to express their views.
USOPC’s new stance is the largest ever call for rule change.
“USOPC values the voices of Team USA athletes and believes that their right to stand up for racial and social justice and be a positive force for change is absolutely in line with the core values of equality that Team USA and the USA have define Olympic and Paralympic movements. Sarah Hirshland, the executive director of USOPC, said in a statement.
Typically, the IOC has reached out to national Olympic committees like the USOPC to impose sanctions for breaking rule 50. With USOPC now refusing, it is not clear how the IOC might deal with an American athlete who chooses to demonstrate at the Olympics.
The USOPC has been heavily criticized over the years for its application and compliance with the rule. Sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked out of the Olympic village at the 1968 Summer Games after raising gloved fists in the air on the medal podium. More recently, USOPC put fencer Race Imboden and hammer thrower Gwen Berry on parole after holding separate demonstrations at the 2019 Pan Am Games.
“It is now clear that this organization should have supported rather than condemned and advocated understanding instead of relying on previous precedents,” Hirshland said in a letter to US athletes on Thursday. “I apologize for this and look forward to a future in which rules are clear, intentions are better understood and voices are strengthened.”
Berry said her 2019 podium demonstration and the controversy that followed cost her sponsorship money and threatened to obstruct her search for participation in the Tokyo Games next summer. On Thursday afternoon, Berry told IOC President Thomas Bach on social media: “The ball is in your field.”
“Black athletes have been repressed and fearful since Tommie and John protested. No different from the last 400 years. The chains and the whip have just been taken away, ”she wrote on Twitter.
The IOC has sought feedback on Rule 50 from athletes, national governing bodies and other stakeholders around the world, and the results are expected to be released to the Athletes Commission early next year.
In a conference call with US reporters on Thursday, Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, the global governing body for athletics, said he supports athletes in using their platform and voice. Last weekend, Coe presented Smith, Carlos and Australian Peter Norman – the three best drivers in the 200-meter race at the 1968 Olympic Games – with the organization’s President’s Award.
“I want our athletes to feel committed and part of the world, that they reflect the world we live in,” said Coe, himself a four-time Olympic champion.
The USOPC task force no longer urged the IOC to allow athletes to stage political protests, with an emphasis on demonstrations related to human rights and social justice. When the group called on the IOC to amend its charter, it called on the IOC to “recognize that protests that focus on human rights and social justice initiatives are not considered to be“ divisive disorders ”of the Games and do not have the same consequences should such as hate speech, promoting racist ideology or expressing discriminatory propaganda. “
“We want to make it unmistakably clear that human rights are not political,” the group wrote. “Yet they have been politicized both in the US and around the world to uphold the illegitimate and dehumanizing myth of sport as an inherently neutral area.”