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Olympic officials uphold rule that bars athlete protests, ignoring U.S. calls for change

U.S. fencer Race Imboden (left) kneels during the national anthem at the men's foil team medal ceremony during the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. (Jose Sotomayor/AFP/Getty Images)

Raising a fist or taking a knee at the Tokyo Games this summer will come with consequences. After an 11-month review process, Olympic officials decided Wednesday to uphold a rule that bars athletes from staging protests from the medals podium or the field of play.

Athletes have long been prohibited from any form of demonstration, including political or human rights protests, at Summer or Winter Games, but the International Olympic Committee’s Rule 50 has come under fire in recent years as some athletes sought to use their platform to bring attention to broader issues.

With American athletes protesting during the national anthem and increasingly taking up social causes in the past year, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee found itself at the forefront of the battle with the IOC over the restrictions athletes face. Last year, U.S. Olympic officials said they wouldn’t punish American athletes who respectfully protest human rights issues at an Olympics and urged the IOC to amend Rule 50.

In announcing the decision to uphold the basic tenets of the rule, Kirsty Coventry, chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, said a broader survey of Olympic athletes around the world found that the vast majority were opposed to allowing protests or demonstrations.

According to the IOC’s Athlete Expression report, 70 percent of the athletes surveyed said it’s not appropriate “to demonstrate or express their views” on the field of play or at the official ceremonies. A slightly fewer number of Olympians — 67 percent — said it wouldn’t be appropriate on a medals podium either.

“So our recommendation is to be able to preserve the podium, field of play and official ceremonies from any kind of protests, demonstrations or acts perceived as such,” Coventry said on a conference call with reporters.

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In a statement Thursday, Sarah Hirshland, the chief executive of the USOPC, said the organization is awaiting further guidance from the IOC but remains committed "to elevating athlete expression and the voices of marginalized populations everywhere in support of racial and social justice.”

“We recognize the [IOC] decision to preserve certain areas from expression differs from our policy,” she said, “and we look forward to collaborating with the IOC to provide clarity on sanctions and education on Rule 50, as these are important to U.S. athletes in the lead up to the Tokyo Games and beyond.”

It’s not clear what disciplinary actions athletes who protest might face. Rather than lay out possible sanctions, the commission’s recommendations call on the IOC’s Legal Affairs Commission to clarify the range of sanctions at a later date.

“I’m a not a lawyer, so that is a little bit out of my realm,” Coventry said. Asked what would happen in the event of a protest such as the one U.S. sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith staged from the podium at the 1968 Games, Coventry said it’s “speculation, so there’s no real need for me to get into that.”

Typically, the IOC relies on its National Olympic Committees to discipline athletes who violate the rule. But the USOPC said in December it won’t punish American athletes who choose to respectfully protest human rights issues at a Summer or Winter Games.

Coventry said she was only aware that U.S. athletes could protest at domestic competitions and Olympic qualifying events and did not appear to be aware that USOPC won’t sanction athletes who chose to protest in Tokyo. An IOC spokesman said in an email Thursday that “each incident will be evaluated by their respective National Olympic Committee, International Federation and the IOC, and disciplinary action will be taken on a case-by-case basis as necessary.”

In a statement, the USOPC’s Athlete Advisory Council expressed disappointment with Wednesday’s decision, saying “until the IOC changes its approach of feeding the myth of the neutrality of sport or protecting the status quo, the voices of marginalized athletes will continue to be silenced.”

Olympic hammer thrower Gwen Berry was perhaps more succinct in her remarks. Berry had initially been punished by the USOPC for raising a fist in the air from the medals podium at the 2019 Pan American Games. In a tweet Thursday, she called the IOC “hypocrites who continue to silence athletes for capital gain.”

“Again, they are on the wrong side of history,” Berry wrote.

The IOC and its president, Thomas Bach, have long supported Rule 50 and have been wary of athletes using the Olympics platform as a protest tool and detracting from the pageantry and competition.

Coventry, a former Olympic swimmer from Zimbabwe, said she personally supports the commission’s recommendations and decision to uphold the rule.

“The podium and field of play and ceremonies were very specific and hold very specific memories in my heart,” she said. “So if I think about when I was competing, I wouldn’t want something to distract and take away from that. That’s how I still feel today.”

The commission’s survey encompassed more than 3,500 athletes — more than half of whom were Olympians — representing 185 national Olympic committees. According to the survey, athletes feel the most appropriate way to express views include in the media (42 percent), at news conferences (38 percent) or during mixed zone interviews (36 percent).

The results showed views vary by country. For example, among Chinese athletes, 91 percent said it’s not appropriate for athletes to express their views from the medal podium, followed by Russia (84 percent), South Africa (78), France (77) and Australia (75). At the other end of the spectrum, 53 percent of American athletes said the podium is an inappropriate protest venue, which was still higher than South Korea and Canada (both 49 percent).

The IOC’s executive board approved six recommendations from its athletes commission related to Rule 50, including adapting the Olympics’ official oath to highlight inclusion and nondiscrimination; incorporating messaging in the Olympic Village branding that celebrates solidarity, inclusion and equality and producing athlete apparel with similar themes; and restructuring Rule 50 and providing better clarity for athletes.

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