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IOC to athletes: No kneeling, hand gestures or ‘any political messaging’ at Tokyo Olympics

American sprinters Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) raise their gloved fists in a civil rights protest at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. (AP) (AP)

The International Olympic Committee warned athletes Thursday not to participate in specific forms of political protest at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, including kneeling, political hand gestures and wearing or holding signs or armbands.

The committee published a three-page document of guidelines to fortify Rule 50 of the International Olympic Charter, which states in part, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

“We needed clarity, and they wanted clarity on the rules,” Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe, chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, which helped create the new document, told the Associated Press. “The majority of athletes feel it is very important that we respect each other as athletes.”

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The guidelines outlaw demonstrations such as those staged by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, American sprinters who raised their gloved fists on the medal stand at the 1968 Games in Mexico City, and former NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who in 2016 began kneeling during the national anthem. Both demonstrations sought to draw attention to racial injustice and have been repeated by other athletes in recent years.

Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa crossed his wrists at the finish line of the men’s marathon at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro to show support for civil rights protesters in his home country. Americans Race Imboden, a fencer, and hammer-thrower Gwen Berry were placed on probation by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee in August after demonstrating on the medal stand at the Pan American Games. Imboden knelt during the national anthem, while Berry raised a fist.

Athletes who protest will face discipline “on a case-by-case basis as necessary,” according to the guidelines.

The document argues for a vision of the Olympics free of political issues, in which athletes choose not to use their worldwide platforms to discuss topics described as a potential “wedge between individuals, groups and nations.”

“It is a fundamental principle that sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference,” the new guidelines state. “Specifically, the focus for the field of play and related ceremonies must be on celebrating athletes’ performance, and showcasing sport and its values.”

“When an individual makes their grievances, however legitimate, more important than the feelings of their competitors and the competition itself, the unity and harmony as well as the celebration of sport and human accomplishment are diminished,” the document later adds.

Athletes are banned from demonstrating on the field of play, at the Athletes’ Village, during medal ceremonies and during Opening and Closing Ceremonies. They are allowed to discuss political issues during interactions with the media, at team meetings and on “digital or traditional media, or on other platforms,” according to the document.

“It should be noted that expressing views is different from protests and demonstrations,” the document says, while noting that the guidelines also apply to trainers, coaches and officials.

The guidelines conclude by saying they were developed so that competitors “can enjoy the experience of the Olympic Games without any divisive disruption.”

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