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USOPC will allow social justice demonstrations at Olympic trials, pushing back against IOC rule

Sprinter Noah Lyles is one of several Americans who have said they would consider a protest in Tokyo. (Petr David Josek/AP)

In an open letter to American athletes Tuesday, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee provided guidance on permitted social and racial justice demonstrations, saying it would allow acts such as raised fists on the podium and kneeling during the national anthem. Such permission places the national committee at odds with the International Olympic Committee’s staunch rule against political protest.

The USOPC’s policy applies to Team USA trials this spring and summer but not to the Tokyo Olympics, which the IOC will oversee. The IOC steadfastly has resisted calls from athletes around the globe, including the United States, to overturn Rule 50, the rule in the Olympic charter that outlaws “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda.”

“While we support your right to demonstrate peacefully in support of racial and social justice, we can’t control the actions others may take in response,” USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland wrote Tuesday.

Hammer thrower Gwen Berry, whom the USOPC placed on probation after she raised her fist on the podium in protest of racial inequality after winning gold at the 2019 Pan American Games, praised the letter as bold and well done. She believes support from the USOPC, despite the threat of punishment from the IOC, may give confidence to athletes who otherwise would have backed down from protesting at the Olympics.

“Real issues are highlighted when people have support,” Berry said. “When people don’t have support, they’ll just hide in the shadows and they won’t say anything. The fact that we do have support now, you never know how somebody will flourish and the issues some people will talk about.”

In the letter, Hirshland included guidance for the trials that “defines latitude for athletes to express their personal perspectives on racial and social justice in a respectful way, and without fear of sanction from the USOPC.”

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The USOPC defined racial and social demonstration as “promoting the human dignity of individuals or groups that have historically been underrepresented, minoritized, or marginalized in their respective societal context.” Its specific examples of approved demonstration included wearing a hat with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” or “Trans Lives Matter,” vocally advocating for equal rights for minorities, holding up a fist, and kneeling during the national anthem.

The USOPC’s letter also outlined “impermissible elements” of demonstration that would result in discipline. They include wearing clothing with hate speech; hand gestures affiliated with hate groups; violence; defacing a national flag; and “protests aimed explicitly against a specific organization, person or group of people.”

“I feel like it was important that they did include things that they will not allow,” Berry said. “Things that are discriminatory. Things that will not enhance the growth of any type of social reform. I think that was really important to put in there. Some people might try to rebel. They might say, ‘Well since this issue can be highlighted or acknowledge, why can’t this?’ The details in what is allowed and not allowed, I feel like they did a very good with implementing that.”

While providing athletes support, the new guidelines create a maze of hypothetical quandaries for the USOPC. For example, if an athlete takes aim at the IOC for not pressuring China — the host country of the 2022 Winter Olympics — on human rights violations, would that be considered a protest explicitly against a specific organization?

The USOPC has struggled for years with how to approach athlete protest. Even as it came to celebrate the famed 1968 raised-fist protest of racial injustice by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, it took cues from the IOC and followed international guidelines that prohibited demonstrations. In 2019, the USOPC placed fencer Race Imboden and Berry on probation after Imboden knelt on the podium and Berry raised a fist during the national anthem at the Pan American Games in Peru.

Hirshland foreshadowed Tuesday’s announcement in June, when amid widespread civic protests of racial injustice athletes shared their experiences and concerns during a virtual town hall. The USOPC then formed “an athlete-led group to challenge the rules and systems in our own organization that create barriers to progress, including your right to protest.” Hirshland also apologized to athletes who “sacrificed your moment on the podium to call for change.”

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In December, the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice, backed by the USOPC, joined the USOPC Athletes’ Advisory Council in calling on the IOC to change Rule 50.

The IOC Athletes’ Commission has been reviewing Rule 50 and could make a recommendation on keeping or changing the rule before the Tokyo Games, perhaps this month. IOC President Thomas Bach has supported Rule 50, writing in an October op-ed in the Guardian that the Games should not “descend into a marketplace of demonstrations of all kinds, dividing and not uniting the world.”

The IOC did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

After a year of racial reckoning in the United States, the IOC is likely to be tested in Tokyo. Sprinter Noah Lyles, projected to be one of the Games’ biggest stars, raised a gloved fist at the starting line of a Diamond League track meet in Monaco last summer. He is one of several Americans who have said they would consider a protest in Tokyo. If they do, they’ll have the backing of their governing body.

“I feel like it’s a victory for all the Black athletes in America who do feel that America has more work to do as far as supporting people who look like us,” Berry said. “It’s a victory for everybody, honestly.”

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