Biles, 24, said she previously would have worried about what former national team coordinator Martha Karolyi and others might have thought. But she has grown since her 2016 Olympic debut. “I’m not a little girl anymore,” she said. And so Biles has thought about demonstrating in some fashion given the new USOPC guidance, which, for instance, allows athletes at the trials to raise their fists on the podium, kneel during the national anthem or wear a face mask that reads “Black Lives Matter.”
“Now that I’ve kind of found my voice, I feel like not only can it benefit me, the team and the people that I’m supporting and advocating for, but it kind of helps everybody,” Biles said. “People get to see a little bit of who you are, just besides an athlete, and what you stand for. And I think that’s really neat.”
The USOPC’s stance on these demonstrations stands in stark contrast to that of the International Olympic Committee; the IOC adheres to Rule 50 of the Olympic charter, which prohibits “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda.” The USOPC developed its new guidelines in consultation with an athlete-led council focused on racial and social justice. Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the USOPC, said the IOC is gathering feedback related to Rule 50 from athletes around the world. Hirshland said she expects to hear within a few months what the IOC found through that survey and whether the international governing body plans to adjust Rule 50.
“We made the determination we made based on what is right for the Team USA athletes, our belief and our fundamental values as an organization,” Hirshland said during a U.S. Olympic media event this past week. “We’ve given that perspective and feedback to the IOC. We also recognize they operate in a global environment, and to expect 206 countries to have similar circumstances would be a tall order.”
If Rule 50 does not change, athletes in Tokyo will not be allowed to demonstrate in support of social justice despite calls from athletes to overturn the rule.
“Personally, I don’t agree with the limitations on the protests,” said swimmer Lilly King, a 2016 Olympic gold medalist. “I know the Olympics is about the spirit of the Olympics and fairness and fair play, and I don’t see why that should be restricted to just sports. I think social justice and fairness in life in general should be celebrated.”
Until recently, the USOPC penalized athletes in line with Rule 50. At the 2019 Pan American Games, hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised her fist during the national anthem and fencer Race Imboden knelt on the podium. The USOPC placed both on probation. After George Floyd died in police custody last year, sparking worldwide protests of racial injustice, the USOPC’s stance began to shift in support of athletes’ right to protest.
Sprinter Allyson Felix, a four-time Olympian, said she had been part of calls in which other athletes expressed how they would like to have the freedom to speak out on social issues while in the field of play.
“I’m really excited to hear that news,” Felix said of the USOPC’s decision to allow demonstrations at the trials. “I think that others would be as well. I don’t want to speak on behalf of anybody, but it’s a major step. And I think the impact will be that hopefully there will be awareness to a lot of important issues, especially issues that affect our individual communities.”
In recent years and particularly after Floyd’s death, athletes, teams and leagues have become increasingly comfortable with advocating for social justice. The WNBA has been at the forefront of many of these pushes. Allisha Gray, who plays for the Dallas Wings and is an Olympic hopeful in three-on-three basketball, said, “It just shows the unity of the league and what we stand for, and we’re on the right side of things.”
In 2016, Minnesota Lynx players wore shirts in warmups that supported the Black Lives Matter movement, and off-duty police officers who were providing security walked off the job. In the years since, athletes have embraced a larger role in conversations about justice and equality.
“It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come as a group, as athletes in this country,” Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. women’s soccer team said. “Athletes are in unique position in this country that is obsessed with sports. … How so many athletes have sort of taken that responsibility on themselves, knowing the influence that we can have, I think is really inspiring.”
Over the weekend, 19-year-old gymnast Morgan Hurd, an Olympic hopeful, spoke at a “Stop Asian Hate” rally in New York. Hurd, who was adopted from China, gave a passionate speech about racism that Asian Americans endure in the United States after eight people, including six Asian women, were killed in shootings in the Atlanta area last month.
While speaking at the rally, Hurd referenced a recent Instagram post from fellow U.S. gymnast Yul Moldauer, who was adopted from South Korea. Moldauer said after honking at a woman who cut him off while driving, she yelled at him to “go back to China” when both cars reached a red light. Hurd has been a vocal advocate of many social justice causes, and the USOPC has now opened the door for athletes to take those stances at trials without fear of repercussion.
“A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, you’re an athlete,’ ” Biles said. “But we’re not just athletes; we’re people, too. And we have a right to speak up for what we believe in.”
Rick Maese and Roman Stubbs contributed to this report.