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Athlete activism is growing and diversifying, just in time for the 2020 Olympics

Gwen Berry raises a fist during the award ceremony for the women's hammer throw at the Pan American Games Saturday. (Claudio Cruz/Reuters)

In the summer before the Tokyo Olympics, this era of athlete activism persists, the protesters and their concerns diversifying. Stick to sports? Nah, stick to living and feeling, not just playing.

The quadrennial Pan American Games, hardly the attention-grabbing showcase it used to be, hosted the latest round of displays in Lima, Peru. The event reentered public consciousness because of the audacity of two athletes representing the United States. On Friday, as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played during the medal ceremony, fencer Race Imboden took a knee and cited racism, gun control, mistreatment of immigrants and President Trump as his primary grievances. For similar reasons, hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised a fist Saturday near the end of the anthem.

“We must call for change,” Imboden wrote on Twitter afterward.

‘It’s not a time to stay silent’: American fencer explains his protest on medal stand

After a gradual buildup, the current wave of athlete activism caught fire in 2016 with a black quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, taking a knee and speaking up about black issues, specifically police brutality and systemic oppression. While motivations related to Black Lives Matter remain at the forefront of many athlete protests, a larger movement has developed, highlighting a multiplicity of societal concerns, transcending race, gender and sexual orientation.

Even as stars from the wealthiest sports leagues grow more silent, the movement continues and keeps forcing its way back into the spotlight, rumbling inexorably toward the monumental 2020 presidential election. That’s also an Olympic year, which makes the protests during the Pan Am Games feel like an opening act for activism in Tokyo.

Will there be a modern-day moment on the level of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black fists during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics? Could there be many displays that paint the ugly picture of divisiveness in America?

I’m not sure this is leading to that kind of history because, for one, the shock value of a protest might not be there with so many athletes having already acted out. It would take something more original and controversial than we’ve ever seen to have the power to inspire meaningful conversation. For as important as the current athlete activism is — the megaphones are needed to blast through negligence and ignorance — we’ve gone into a rut lately in which people are sticking to their preprogrammed ways of thinking and avoiding the opportunity to have their minds challenged. It’s harder and harder to provoke the public in a worthwhile manner. That’s why the expectation of protest during the 2020 Olympics must come with a few questions: What kind of protest? From whom? And will it be something new?

It is most likely that, rather than an act, the 2020 Olympics will be defined from an American perspective by certain characters telling their stories, speaking their truths, standing up to criticism and emerging victorious whether you like them or not. Think back to the U.S. women’s soccer team and its World Cup triumph amid a fight for fair pay. Think about Megan Rapinoe being unapologetically herself: a proud lesbian, concerned about many human rights issues, who refuses to stand down, seems to enjoy the verbal sparring with a president she doesn’t like and performs at the highest level amid the storm.

Megan Rapinoe isn’t here to make you comfortable

Rapinoe and her team will be back for an Olympic run. So will the outspoken WNBA players leading the U.S. women’s basketball team and a men’s basketball coaching staff featuring Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr, who have refused to stay silent about gun violence while preparing for the World Cup.

There are so many others who will excel and give a human face to issues, and they are impossible to dismiss during the Olympics. Sometimes, if it’s just another copycat protest during the anthem, the story gets portrayed like a matter of accounting. Sadly, people become numb to it. But great characters exhibiting power, excellence and humanity still pierce their way into our consciousness.

For instance, Simone Biles wouldn’t fit the traditional definition of a protester. But her dominance, to me, is a form of activism, especially as USA Gymnastics continues to pick up the pieces following its disheartening and infuriating sexual abuse scandal. Biles, a survivor of Larry Nassar’s abuse, went to Kansas City, Mo., for the U.S. championships and began by saying Wednesday: “It’s hard coming here for an organization and having had them fail us so many times. They couldn’t do one damn job. You had one job. You literally had one job, and you couldn’t protect us.”

By Sunday, she had won her sixth U.S. all-around title and amazed the entire world by landing that historic triple-double. If you weren’t awed by her athleticism, grace and power, you should stop watching sports. And if her breathtaking, once-in-a-lifetime talent doesn’t make you care about her plight and the need to ensure gymnasts aren’t preyed upon ever again, you shouldn’t have the privilege of watching her compete.

Simone Biles completes historic triple-double en route to sixth U.S. championship

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee is likely to take extra measures to keep athletes from protesting in Tokyo. It already has responded to Imboden and Barry by emphasizing the athletes’ terms of eligibility, in which they commit to “refrain from demonstrations that are political in nature.”

In a statement, USOPC vice president of communications Mark Jones said of Imboden, according to the Associated Press: “We respect his rights to express his viewpoints but we are disappointed that he chose not to honor his commitment. Our leadership are reviewing what consequences may result.”

While public pressure could help minimize the punishment, this is also what comes with protest. Freedom of speech doesn’t guarantee freedom from all repercussions. Kaepernick lost his NFL career because he took a knee. The power of a protest lies in the disobedience, which is supposed to shock people into caring. The price you’re willing to pay, no matter how unfair, also confirms the conviction behind your beliefs. The hope is that, over time, people will comprehend the whys of such a sacrifice on a deeper level.

A year ago, during the 50th anniversary of the Smith-Carlos protest, I asked Carlos about how he weighed the risks and rewards of their protest. In 1968, athletes were warned not to make any displays. The USOC and IOC knew about the potential impact of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. They wanted an uncomplicated Olympics, same as all the committees will want next year. Almost all of the athletes chose to obey. Smith and Carlos couldn’t.

Sally Jenkins: When athletes kneel, the rotten U.S. Olympic regime has no moral standing to object

“Yeah, I could have went and kissed ass, cheesed, grinned,” Carlos said. “They said: ‘Play nice, and we can get you a job. You will make $100,000 a year.’ But am I giving up my soul for $100,000 a year? Am I forgetting about my kids? Am I forgetting about my grandkids by selling my soul for a job instead of taking a stand for human rights?”

Their protest was unique. No shoes, black socks. Black fists. It penetrated the country’s wall of dispassion. They were vilified. They lived difficult lives because of their decision. And more than a half-century later, history understands them. They are still polarizing, sure. They also have statues at their alma mater, San Jose State.

Realistically, I don’t think the past three years of athlete activism will add up to an explosive Olympics. For certain star performers, I don’t think it has to come to that to spark conversation, either. But as Smith and Carlos showed, you never know who might shock you. Or how they might do it.

Eleven months from Tokyo, there is nervous anticipation. Some might consider that bad or threatening, but it’s nowhere near as worrisome as the issues they’re attempting to highlight. You don’t want acts? Do this one damn job: Listen better, care more, and elevate humanity.