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U.S. Olympic officials take step to support protesting athletes

On the medal podium at the Pan American Games last year, Gwen Berry raised her fist as a show of frustration over racial inequality. (Shizuo Kambayashi/AP)

For decades, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee has struggled to find the best way to handle athletes staging political protests during competitions, usually handing down punishments and kowtowing to international rules. On Monday, in the wake of civic protests and wide-ranging discussions on race and equality across the country, the governing body signaled its intent to challenge long-standing Olympic rules and support American athletes’ ability to make political statements.

Sarah Hirshland, the USOPC’s chief executive, sent a letter to U.S. athletes announcing the formation of “an athlete-led group to challenge the rules and systems in our own organization that create barriers to progress, including your right to protest.”

“We will also advocate for change globally,” she wrote.

The initiative could mark a major challenge to the Olympic Charter and the controversial Rule 50, which bars any “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda.” It’s the rule the USOPC has cited in punishing protesting athletes, most recently fencer Race Imboden and hammer thrower Gwen Berry at the Pan American Games last summer in Lima, Peru. Berry raised a fist during the national anthem, and Imboden took a knee on the medal podium. Each was put on probation for 12 months.

“It’s encouraging,” Berry said Tuesday of the USOPC’s announcement. “I think it demonstrates that athletes’ peaceful protesting is powerful and it can promote change. It’s a step in the right direction. We need to challenge the rule.”

Monday’s letter came after Hirshland participated in two town hall discussions with athletes last week, the first featuring track and field athletes and the second with athletes across all sports. Many were passionate and took offense that the USOPC’s initial statement last week didn’t mention George Floyd or the Black Lives Matter movement. Both discussions featured several African American Olympians sharing their experiences and frustrations, with many calling for substantive change, according to participants of the calls.

“They listened to the people who spoke up and who shared their stories, especially athletes from the black community,” ­Imboden said. “They called for change. The USOC is listening. Hopefully this will be widespread and go deep and break some of those roots of systematic racism and systematic problems that are in every organization, including the USOC.”

Said Berry: “The USOPC definitely heard a lot of powerful stories. I think they can tell now that, even if you’re a professional, world-class athlete, you’re still subjected to racism in this country. I think that was important for them to realize and understand.”

Hirshland has also been in touch with more than a dozen current and former Team USA athletes in the past week, including a chat with Berry in which she offered an apology 10 months after putting the hammer thrower on probation.

“The pain experienced by Black athletes and by the Black community — in recent weeks and for far too long before the murder of George Floyd — is unconscionable,” Hirshland wrote. “Your courage is inspirational. For decades you have spoken about equality and unity and sacrificed your moment on the podium to call for change. And we have failed to listen and tolerated racism and inequality. I am sorry. You deserve better. You matter. Black Lives Matter.

“It is time to match your courage,” she continued. “To listen and to understand. To do the work. To accept that addressing racial injustice is everyone’s concern, every day. To remove the barriers, to change the rules, and to empower Black voices to be heard.”

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She said the athlete-led group would be open to all Team USA athletes, but other details about the initiative still need to be worked out. The USOPC began exploring pathways for athletes to better use their platforms and make social and political statements following last year’s Pan American Games, an effort that gained renewed momentum last week.

While the USOPC and most of the national governing bodies for Olympic sports in the United States issued public statements following the death of Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police, many athletes called for more substantive action.

“Athletes, we have a lot of feelings. We have a lot to say, and we want to be able to use our platform,” Berry said following the town hall with track and field athletes. “We want to be able to speak when we want. I feel like that was the biggest thing about [the town hall]. All the athletes wanted to voice their opinions and how they feel in this system we hold so dear.”

The USOPC has long said its hands are largely tied by the Olympic Charter and other rules that govern international competition. While it can’t change those rules, the influential body can advocate and apply pressure to the International Olympic Committee to revisit rules governing political speech and protests.

“Rule 50 is being used to silence voices — mostly black voices,” Imboden said. “I don’t think they should be silencing those voices. There has to be actionable change on that.”

Berry pointed out last week in an open letter that the USOPC and the IOC were responsible for punishing athletes — such as Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who staged an iconic protest on the medal podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City — only to celebrate them years later.

“The last few weeks have shown the issues of poverty and race are the same, if not worse, than they were in 1968 and the IOC’s stance on athletes’ rights is confusing at best and outright hypocritical at worst,” she said. “ … Rule 50 is a step backward to 1968 where protesting athletes were stripped of their medals and thrown out of the Games, protesting for causes which even the IOC admits now are legitimate.”

Berry has been vocal and has vowed to help lead the charge toward change. After discussions with Hirshland and Max Siegel, chief executive of USA Track & Field, she might have more support.

“Today is just a start,” Hirshland wrote in her letter Monday. “We will continue to listen and will evolve our actions as we hear from you and together find the best ways to effect change.”