With the Tokyo Summer Olympics less than a year away, two athletes who could well be competing in the Games protested President Trump and his policies during the “Star-Spangled Banner” at the Pan American Games, raising the possibility that there could be more to come when the Olympics present a global stage.
Gwen Berry, a hammer thrower, raised a fist as she stood for the national anthem on the medal podium and fencer Race Imboden took a knee on the podium. Berry’s gesture was a flashback to Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who each raised a fist at the 1968 Mexico City Games. She wasn’t, she told NBC, trying to send “a big message.”
“Just a testament to everything I’ve been through in the past year, and everything the country has been through this past year,” she said. “A lot of things need to be done and said and changed. I’m not trying to start a political war or act like I’m miss-know-it-all or anything like that. I just know America can do better.”
Berry said she has not decided whether to do the same thing at the world championships this fall.
“Every individual person has their own views of things that are going on,” the 30-year-old said. “It’s in the Constitution, freedom of speech. I have a right to feel what I want to feel. It’s no disrespect at all to the country. I want to make that very clear. If anything, I’m doing it out of love and respect for people in the country.”
She added, “What I did [Friday] was just something I felt in my soul that I should have done. It was random. I haven’t thought about it. I really don’t want to make a spectacle.”
Imboden, one of a quartet that won Team USA’s first world championship in team foil last month, took to social media, sharing a photo of him on bended knee after he won team gold in foil competition along with Gerek Meinhardt and Nick Itkin, who stood. Imboden called for change less than a week after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton and criticized President Trump as “a president who spreads hate.” He went on to urge others to “use your platforms for empowerment and change.”
“We must call for change. This week I am honored to represent Team USA at the Pan Am Games, taking home Gold and Bronze. My pride however has been cut short by the multiple shortcomings of the country I hold so dear to my heart,” he tweeted. “Racism, Gun Control, mistreatment of immigrants, and a president who spreads hate are at the top of a long list. I chose to sacrifice my moment today at the top of the podium to call attention to issues that I believe need to be addressed. I encourage others to please use your platforms for empowerment and change.”
The solution to protests, as far as the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee is concerned, is to remind athletes that they signed an agreement to comply with Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
“In this case, Race didn’t adhere to the commitment he made to the organizing committee and the USOPC,” USOPC spokesperson Mark Jones said. “We respect his rights to express his viewpoints, but we are disappointed that he chose not to honor his commitment.”
The organization echoed that when Berry raised her fist and is reviewing whether to take action.
The question organizers face is whether that will be enough, given that athletes — whether retired or active, professional or amateur, male or female — have been refusing to stick to sports. When they compete for the United States, criticism for an action can be more polarizing and it can bring presidential attacks, as Colin Kaepernick found out when he began taking a knee to raise awareness of social injustice and police brutality, and Megan Rapinoe learned when she said she wouldn’t visit Trump’s White House.
Further complicating the matter for athletes and Olympic officials is that the Games run from July 24-Aug. 9 next year, just when the presidential campaigns are heating up. Athletes such as Rapinoe, Kaepernick (who hasn’t played in the NFL since the 2016 season) and others say there is no choice but to speak up without regard to the consequences. For Olympic athletes such as LeBron James and Serena Williams, who have a professional outlet for their talents, a demonstration carries little damage to their livelihood. For Berry, Imboden and others, including Olympic organizers, the stakes are high.
Read more from The Post: