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After pushback, U.S. Olympic leaders say they won’t punish athletes for social justice protests

A statue in honor of former Olympians Tommie Smith, left, and John Carlos on the campus of San Jose State University. (Tony Avelar/AP)
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Facing criticism from athletes and growing calls for change, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee announced Thursday it will not punish American athletes who stage peaceful protests at the Olympics.

The USOPC made the decision in response to recommendations issued by the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice, a group of U.S. athletes and Olympic sports stakeholders who are calling on the International Olympic Committee to amend its charter to allow social justice and human rights protests by athletes at an Olympic or Paralympic Games.

Known as Rule 50 in the Olympic Charter, the controversial provision has been under scrutiny, and the IOC this year tasked its athlete commission to explore possible changes. The USOPC also has been focused on the issue after facing heavy criticism for reprimanding a pair of American athletes who staged protests at the Pan American Games in August 2019.

This spring, as social unrest broke out across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a White police officer, the USOPC established a working group to study Rule 50 and issues of social and racial justice. The result was a four-page statement that was sent Wednesday to the IOC and made public Thursday, in which the group contends that the IOC’s current rules “violate athletes’ rights to free speech and freedom of expression.”

“The silencing of athletes during the Games is in stark contrast to the importance of recognizing participants in the Games as humans first and athletes second,” the group wrote. “Prohibiting athletes to freely express their views during the Games, particularly those from historically underrepresented and minoritized groups, contributes to the dehumanization of athletes that is at odds with key Olympic and Paralympic values.”

An IOC spokesman declined to comment and instead referred to a statement issued by Kirsty Coventry, chair of the IOC’s athletes’ commission. She said while the group’s Rule 50 study is ongoing, the “majority” of athletes thus far “emphasise the right of free speech” and “express support for preserving the ceremonies, the podium and the field of play.”

“While there are many opportunities that exist for athletes within the current Rule 50 to express their view at Games time, be it in press conferences, interviews, on social media or in team meetings, the purpose of the ongoing consultation by the IOC [athletes’ commission] is to be creative in finding solutions and to ensure that its recommendations are fully informed,” she said.

Athlete protests have been fiercely debated throughout the Olympic world this year, facing resistance from some IOC leaders. While the IOC has repeatedly said protests don’t belong inside Olympic venues, on the playing field or on a medals podium, the organization has begun to explore other ways athletes can use their platforms to voice their opinions.

The USOPC’s new stance stands as the biggest call to date for a change to the rule.

“The USOPC values the voices of Team USA athletes and believes that their right to advocate for racial and social justice, and be a positive force for change, absolutely aligns with the fundamental values of equality that define Team USA and the Olympic and Paralympic movements,” Sarah Hirshland, the USOPC’s chief executive, said in a statement.

Typically, the IOC has turned to national Olympic committees such as the USOPC to issue any punishments over a Rule 50 violation. With the USOPC now refusing to do so, it’s not clear how the IOC might handle an American athlete who chooses to demonstrate at an Olympics.

The USOPC has been heavily criticized over the years for its application and adherence to the rule. Sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos were famously kicked out of the Olympic Village at the 1968 Summer Games after they raised gloved fists on the medals podium. More recently, the USOPC placed fencer Race Imboden and hammer thrower Gwen Berry on probation after they staged separate demonstrations at the 2019 Pan Am Games.

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“It is clear now that this organization should have supported instead of condemned, and advocated for understanding instead of relying on previous precedent,” Hirshland said in a letter to U.S. athletes Thursday. “For that, I apologize, and look forward to a future where rules are clear, intentions are better understood, and voices are empowered.”

Berry said her 2019 podium demonstration and the ensuing controversy cost her sponsorship money and threatened to hinder her quest to compete at the Tokyo Games next summer. On social media Thursday afternoon, Berry said to IOC President Thomas Bach, “the ball is in your court.”

“Black athletes have been suppressed and living in fear since Tommie and John’s protest.. no different to the last 400 years. The chains and the whip have just been taken away,” she wrote on Twitter.

The IOC has been soliciting feedback on Rule 50 from athletes, national governing bodies and other stakeholders around the world, and it is expected to share the athletes’ commission findings early next year.

In a conference call with U.S. reporters Thursday, Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, the global governing body for track and field, said he supported athletes using their platform and voice. Coe this past weekend honored Smith, Carlos and Australian Peter Norman — the top three finishers in the 200-meter race at the 1968 Olympics — with the organization’s President’s Award.

“I want our athletes to feel that they are engaged and are part of the world, that they reflect the world that we live in,” said Coe, a four-time Olympic medalist himself.

The USOPC’s task force stopped short of calling on the IOC to allow athletes to stage political protests, focusing on demonstrations related to human rights and social justice. In urging the IOC to amend its charter, the group called on the IOC to “recognize that protests focused on human rights and social justice initiatives do not qualify as ‘divisive disruptions’ of the Games and should not be met with the same consequences as hate speech, the promotion of racist ideology, or expressions of discriminatory propaganda.”

“We want to make unmistakably clear that human rights are not political,” the group wrote. “Yet, they have been politicized both in the U.S. and globally to perpetuate the wrongful and dehumanizing myth of sport as an inherently neutral domain.”