As various athletes have joined and in some cases led those public calls for justice, the USOPC and many national governing bodies (NGBs) have struggled to find appropriate and satisfactory responses to the concerns of those who regularly wear “USA” on their uniforms when competing. Imboden’s and Berry’s demonstrations and subsequent punishments have become touchstones for what some athletes see as a leadership beholden to corporate interests and a vague international policy that stifles individual voices.
USOPC chief executive Sarah Hirshland apologized to Berry this week, more than 10 months after her podium protest in Lima, Peru. The USOPC scheduled a town hall discussion for its athletes for Friday, offering them an opportunity to discuss the issues enveloping the nation. It initially invited Imboden, who is white, to be among three athletes to help facilitate the dialogue, but the fencer bowed out Friday morning.
“I contacted the athletes in the black community closest to me and asked them for their opinions and feelings before moving forward,” Imboden said via Twitter on Friday morning. “They have made it clear that they do not see this as a genuine response from the USOC and that me as non-POC should not be facilitating a conversation on ‘Race’. I stand by them, and will decline the position as facilitator and instead join in the conversation as a member of the community and an ally.”
The town hall discussion remains scheduled for Friday afternoon and is to be facilitated by wrestler Jordan Burroughs and former Paralympic skier Bonnie St. John, both of whom are African American, according to a USOPC spokesman.
The USOPC and NGBs issued public statements this week, voicing concerns and pledging support, many touching on inclusion and the Olympic ideals. But the message hasn’t resonated with everyone, especially in light of the punishments levied on Berry and Imboden last summer.
“The USOC and its CEO are claiming to be supportive of Equality and supporting Black athletes. I’m white, I don’t want an apology. I want proof,” Imboden said in a tweet this week.
In a letter to athletes this week, Hirshland said: “We absolutely condemn the systemic inequality that disproportionately impacts Black Americans in the United States. It has no place in ours or any other community.” But many felt the message ran counter to the decision to punish the athletes last year, and it sparked a firestorm of sorts in some social media corners.
Berry told Hirshland, via Twitter: “I want an apology letter .. mailed .. just like you and the IOC MAILED ME WHEN YOU PUT ME ON PROBATION.. stop playing with me.”
When she initially punished Imboden and Berry last year, Hirshland warned against future protests, saying in a letter, “It is also important for me to point out that, going forward, issuing a reprimand to other athletes in a similar instance is insufficient.”
“I am grateful to Gwen for her time and her honesty last night. I heard her,” Hirshland wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “I apologized for how my decisions made her feel and also did my best to explain why I made them. Gwen has a powerful voice in this national conversation, and I am sure that together we can use the platform of Olympic and Paralympic sport to address and fight against systematic inequality and racism in our country.”
In a phone interview Friday, Berry said Hirshland called her Wednesday and apologized. She characterized the interactions with Olympic leadership as constructive but limited.
“I feel like they’ve tried to de-escalate the situation as much as possible,” she said. “I feel like they’ve done their best to hear us out and understand where systematic oppression and sports coincide, and they’ve tried to delegate the dos and don’ts of the rules and discuss what some of the rules are, how they are and why they are.
“I feel like the sentiment to me is not sincere only because when you are legally bound by money or other interests you need to protect, there is no way you can sincerely be for the athletes or for a movement that is brought on by systematic oppression. Because you benefit from the system.”
Han Xiao, chair of the USOPC’s Athletes’ Advisory Council, said the USOPC is in a tough position in responding to the controversy and appeasing all parties, including athletes, sponsors, the International Olympic Committee and elected officials. “For the USOPC and the NGBs, it’s a particularly difficult topic because they have to balance a couple of different pressures,” Xiao said. “One is the IOC and Rule 50.”
The USOPC cited the Olympic Charter’s controversial rule in levying its punishments. Rule 50 states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
Xiao said the rule is somewhat vague and should be revisited — “it’s not clearly defined what the punishments will be, what the criteria is or what constitutes a political protest,” he said — but for now, he says the USOPC feels its hands are tied by the charter; the IOC requires the organization to respond to any violations, such as Imboden’s and Berry’s Pan Am protests.
“It’s also important to recognize that the issue around police brutality and the way minorities are treated, especially black people in this country, has been heavily politicized,” he said. “It's difficult for the USOPC voicing political concerns being a nonpolitical entity but being overseen by Congress. Just like other organizations, they’re in a difficult position. I think the current situation has become a catalyst to try to understand what they can be doing better. Hopefully they succeed in that. I think the conversations that are now happening, the listening, is at least a first step.”
Berry has said the protest cost her sponsorship money and endangered her quest for the Tokyo Olympics, which were postponed to 2021 because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. She said this week that she was contacted by Max Siegel, chief executive at USA Track & Field, to facilitate a meeting. On Thursday, the USOPC organized a conference call for all of its track and field athletes in which Hirshland took part.
While race equality and police brutality have sparked dialogue across the country, Berry and Imboden have been a focal point for many in the Olympic world.
Sprinter Noah Lyles, the reigning 200-meter world champion and one of the sport’s biggest rising stars, admired Imboden and Berry taking their stances, knowing how much they had to lose in sponsorship support and risk in public perception.
“Seeing them do that, that already puts them on a very high level for me,” Lyles said in a phone interview Friday. “And it also shows really how much these organizations are really trying to support us. I guess some people could look at them and say: ‘Oh, they’re on suspensions. That’s nice of them to do.’ In our eyes, it’s like, no, they basically told them: ‘You’re kind of on house arrest. Don’t do anything, or we’re going to really mess you up next time.’ ”
Lyles participated in Thursday’s conference call for track and field athletes. He sensed frustration from his peers during the lengthy session.
“The strongest point that was made in there was us pleading that we hear the IOC, USATF and all these big companies, even sponsors, saying, ‘We support you,’ ” Lyles said. “Which you do. But we’re not seeing any action taken on to that. If you support us, we need to see how much you support us. There are people who are going to be putting up a fist or kneeling, and we need to know, are you going to be putting them on probation? Or are you going to be saying, ‘They did this for the right reason; we don’t need to be punishing them anymore’? ”
Rule 50 and the punishment haven’t stopped Berry from speaking her mind. She continues training for Tokyo and has followed the headlines and developments closely the past few days.
“We have to understand that Major Corporations And Organization’s are only speaking out because they have to protect their investments. It is purely for political reasons,” she tweeted. “ I urge us all to NOT BE EASILY SATISFIED!!! Make them PUT UP or SHUT UP.”
Adam Kilgore contributed to this report