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Team USA's Raven Saunders makes an "X" with her arms on the podium, aftering winning a silver medal in women's shot put at the 2020 Tokyo Games. Photo by Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images

‘Sport is political.’ How athletes are keeping human rights center stage at the Olympics

With a silver medal in women’s shot put draped around her neck, U.S. athlete Raven Saunders raised her arms over her head and crossed them into an “X,” a gesture she would later clarify to journalists as representing the “intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.”

“Shout out to all my Black people, shout out to all my LBGTQ community, shout out to everybody dealing with mental health,” Saunders added. “Because at the end of the day, we understand that it’s bigger than us, and it’s bigger than the powers that be.”

The moment was the first political demonstration on the tiered Olympic podium at the Tokyo Games, deepening the decades-long debate over how athletes can exercise free speech at the global event.

Athletics - Olympics: Day 9

Silver medalist Raven Saunders of Team USA, gold medalist Lijiao Gong of Team China (C) and bronze medalist Valerie Adams of Team New Zealand (R) pose during the medal ceremony for the women’s shot put at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Before Saunders, there had been a series of athletes who protested during the Games. Gwen Berry raised her fist before the women’s hammer throw final, weeks after she held up a shirt that read “Activist Athlete” and didn’t face the American flag as the national anthem played during the U.S. Olympic trials. American fencer Race Imboden displayed an “X” on his right hand, echoing Saunders’ gesture, as he received a bronze medal.

Two years ago, these same two athletes received yearlong probations from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) for similar demonstrations — Berry raised her fist, Imboden took a knee — during medal ceremonies at the Pan American Games in Peru. This year, neither athlete faced consequences from the International Olympic Committee for their demonstrations, underscoring how the rules have loosened since. But Saunders’ case is a reminder that bigger disagreements over the longstanding Olympic ban on athlete protests remain.

The IOC expects the 205 national Olympics committees, a group that includes the USOPC, to mete out punishment for violations of its rules at the Games. But the USOPC defended Saunders in the day following her demonstration. After conducting its own review, the USOPC said in a statement that the “peaceful expression in support of racial and social justice” didn’t violate its own rules for demonstration.

The IOC had been in discussion with the USOPC and World Athletics, track and field’s international governing body, about the gesture. And on Wednesday, the IOC announced that it was suspending its investigation “for the time being” after the athlete’s mother, Clarissa Saunders, died.

Saunders’ protest may not be the last high-profile demonstration at the Olympics, which continue through this Saturday, followed by the Paralympics starting Aug. 24. Saunders, a Black and openly gay athlete, has been outspoken about her struggles with depression and identity. And as long as athletes of marginalized identities reach the podium, some experts say, it’s doubtful the desire to take a stand will fade anytime soon.

But this year’s Olympic Games may be a “turning point” on this issue, said Letisha Engracia Cardoso Brown, an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Tech.

“Protests will continue as long as people are athletes and athletes are people with ties to the world,” she said. “They exist in this world, and they’re impacted by this world. They’re going to have feelings and emotions about what’s going on.”

How did we get here?

The IOC has long described the Olympic Games — and sport in general — as something that exists separately from politics. In its latest guidelines, the IOC said that a “fundamental principle” at the Games is sport is neutral, adding that athletes’ expressions within Olympic venues — whether on the field of play during competitions or official ceremonies — “may distract the focus from the celebration of athletes’ sporting performances.”

Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter reads: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” A similar rule appears in the International Paralympic Committee handbook.

Athletics - Olympics: Day 11

A view of the “X” drawn on Gwen Berry’s hands, as she competes in the women’s hammer throw final at the 2020 Tokyo Games. Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

In an op-ed in The Guardian late last year, IOC president Thomas Bach reiterated the organization’s stance and wrote that the Games “are not about politics.”

“The International Olympic Committee, as a civil non-governmental organization, is strictly politically neutral at all times,” Bach wrote. In a subsequent statement in the weeks before the Tokyo Games, Bach stood firm on the IOC’s position, telling the Financial Times that the podium wasn’t a place for demonstrations.

But Rule 50, which has been in the charter in some form since 1975, has been under increasing pressure to change. In December, the USOPC announced it wouldn’t discipline athletes for peaceful demonstrations after an athlete-led council offered recommendations for the rule, following the murder of George Floyd and the global protests against racial injustice.

The IOC, bolstered by a worldwide survey showing athletes largely supporting Rule 50, made some clarifications around its ban ahead of the Tokyo Games: Athletes were allowed to speak up in news conferences, on their social media accounts, or protest on the field of play before a competition, but the medal podiums were still no place for political expression.

Sweden v United States: Women's Football - Olympics: Day -2

Lindsey Horan of the U.S. women’s national soccer team kneels during a game between Sweden and USWNT at the 2020 Tokyo Games. Photo by Logan Beerman/ISI Photos/Getty Images

But the calls for changes did not stop. On the day of the Tokyo Games opening ceremony, more than 150 athletes, academics, and advocates signed an open letter, urging the IOC and the IPC to “make a stronger commitment to human rights, racial/social justice, and social inclusion” by amending the rule and refraining from imposing sanctions on athletes who protest at the Games.

Brown, who was one of the letter’s signatories, said “to deny people the opportunity to protest is to silence an essential part of their being.”

For Brown, Saunders’ “X” was a “beautiful reflection of Black feminism,” reminding her of a particular line from the 1977 Combahee River Collective Statement: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”

In an Instagram caption after her televised demonstration, Saunders wrote: “Meet me at the ❌”.

‘Sport is political’

U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos most famously tested the IOC’s stance against demonstrations during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. In a now-iconic image, both athletes, heads bowed and donning black gloves, raised their fists after being awarded their medals in the 200-meter sprint. Atop the podium, they stood in black socks and no shoes, a nod to the poverty Black people faced in the U.S. Smith also wore a scarf to symbolize Black pride. Carlos wore beads in honor of lynching victims.

1968 Olympic Games Mexico City, Mexico. Men's 200 Metres Final. USA gold medallist Tommie Smith (C) and bronze medallist J...

Gold medalist Tommie Smith (C) and bronze medalist John Carlos (R) protest from the podium at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Photo by Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images

The athletes’ protest of system racism and discrimination against Black people, considered one of the most influential moments in sports history, was met with suspensions from the U.S. team. At home, they were vilified for bringing the subject of human rights to the Olympic stage.

Reflecting on that moment, Smith told the Los Angeles Times that “athletes have a right to say whatever is on their mind, whether it’s agreeable to those who are watching or it’s thought of negatively.”

“We are human beings,” he added.

“As an athlete, if I want to protest, I don’t really care what the rules are. I really care about the issue,” said Kenneth Shropshire, a professor and chief executive of the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University who was also on the Team USA council that offered revisions for Rule 50.

Caslavska Triumphant

Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska is thrown in the air by her teammates after winning an event at the 1968 Mexico City Games. Photo by Agence France Presse/Getty Images

He pointed to another silent protest at the 1968 Games. Vera Caslavska, a decorated Czech gymnast, shared a gold medal with Soviet gymnast Larisa Petrik in the floor routine and was awarded silver in the balance beam. During both medal ceremonies, she shared the podium with Soviet gymnasts. As the Soviet flag was being raised and the country’s anthem played, Caslavska turned her head down and to the right. It was, in part, a protest against the Soviet Union invasion of Czechoslovakia weeks before the Games.

“This does not appear to be an accident,” an announcer at the time said of Caslavska’s defiant gesture.

Simply, “Sport is political,” Shropshire said, adding that there are all kinds of political decisions involved with the Olympic Games that chip away at the notion of neutrality. Think of the Games that have been canceled, he said.

The Games were canceled once during World War I and twice during World War II, including the 1940 Summer Olympics after Tokyo forfeited its position as host city when Japan invaded China a few years prior.

The IOC’s guidelines warn against “disruptive” expressions from athletes. But what to make of the “disruptions” from world events outside the Olympic Village?

1936 Olympic Games. Berlin, Germany. Men's 100 Metres Final. USA's legendary Jesse Owens on his way to winning one of his ...

Jesse Owens competing in the men’s 100m final, one of the four gold medals he won at the 1936 Berlin Games. Photo by Popperfoto via Getty Images

Notoriously, Adolf Hitler used the ceremonial grandeur of the 1936 Berlin Olympics to promote Nazi propaganda and Aryan supremacy. And despite an attempted U.S. boycott by Jewish groups, Catholic organizations and some Black-owned newspapers, the Berlin Games prevailed. The 18 Black athletes on Team USA, including Jesse Owens, won 14 Olympic medals. Their victories carried a weight greater than athletic excellence. They were upheld as a blow to Hitler’s Nazi racist ideology, an argument Owens himself made prior to his participation in the Games. At the same time, these Black American athletes returned to a country with pervasive Jim Crow laws.

In his 1972 autobiography “I Have Changed,” Owens reflected on what happened after he came back to the U.S. with his four gold medals, writing “it became increasingly apparent that everyone was going to slap me on the back, want to shake my hand or have me up to their suite. But no one was going to offer me a job.”

What lies ahead

When you live at the intersection — at the “X” — you are placed on the margins of society, said Akilah R. Carter-Francique, executive director of the San Jose State University’s Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change.

“If you’re not of that dominant population, if you aren’t white, if you aren’t male, if you aren’t upper class and you aren’t heterosexual … you’re othered and, oftentimes, your voice is silenced. Your existence in spaces and places and in communities is often invisible or rendered invisible,” Carter-Francique said. When that happens, “your own humanity is really reduced and often ignored.”

And Sauders, through her protest, is speaking for all those communities, she said. It provided an opportunity for spectators to ask what the “X” represented, as well as understand the issues driving her demonstration. People may find that each of the issues amplified by the athlete “is just not a Raven issue, it is not a U.S. issue, but these issues are happening globally, and they need to be addressed in many of our respective nations,” she said.

The IOC didn’t specify in its guidelines on how it would punish athletes for violating its updated rule on demonstrations during this year’s Games.

Carter-Francique, who also signed the statement to the IOC, said we’ve seen a departure from the typical marketing for the Olympic Games as this quest for gold. She said when she thinks back to Smith and Carlos raising their fists from the podium, “to get to that stage, it takes a lot of training, takes a lot of strength, takes a lot of hours, and then to have the consciousness and fortitude and support behind you to say, ‘I’m going to stand up and speak for my people,’ is another state as well,” she said.

She hopes the IOC, learning from ongoing discussions over its rule, creates a space for athletes to speak up on various issues, and work with them to create pathways toward education, toward policy creations and revisions to better address these issues that affect multiple nations. It shouldn’t matter if they’d earned a spot on the podium.

For Brown, the IOC also risks athletes not wanting to partake in the Games if they’re not allowed to “participate to their full extent.” She said, in the U.S. in particular, where sports are built off of Black labor, all the Black athletes could band together and say “we’re not going to lay down for you to walk all over anymore.”

“If the IOC isn’t going to make space, I would like to see athletes make the space for themselves,” she said.

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