At the annual awards ceremony of track and field’s world governing body in December, its head, Sebastian Coe, gave the President’s Award to long-retired U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos but not for their athleticism. Instead, he cited the activism they demonstrated at the 1968 Summer Olympics by bowing their heads on the medal platform as “The Star-Spangled Banner” blared and punching black-gloved fists into the Mexico City night to protest inhumanity around the globe.
“One of my ambitions is that all our athletes in the current batch become students of their sport, that they understand our history,” said Coe, who was 12 when Smith and Carlos created perhaps the Olympics’ most memorable image. “You are a seminal part of that history, and while I’m in this role I will continually remind them of the sentiments you’ve expressed. You are an iconic part of our sport.”
Part of what made the protest by Smith and Carlos — and the Australian on the podium, Peter Norman, whom Coe cited for joining the U.S. duo in solidarity by sporting a patch representing their cause — peal forever was how Olympic officials reacted. The U.S. Olympic Committee suspended them. Officials booted them out of the Olympic Village and all the way back to the United States. That came after an Olympic official condemned the two for “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.”
That would be the ideology captured in what is now Rule 50 of the Olympic charter. It reads in part: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
Last week, as the world continued to be roiled by protests — against racialized police lethality in the United States, authoritarianism in Myanmar and human rights abuses in Russia, to name but a few — the International Olympic Committee announced it was upholding its ban of protests at its Games. It warned of punishment against those who might mimic Carlos, Smith and Norman.
I, however, wholly support the rule. After all, are you really protesting if you do so only after being granted permission?
Protest is not a cooperative event. It is a confrontation. As the Organization of American States reminded in a recent report on protest and human rights, "the exercise of fundamental freedoms should not be subject to previous authorization by the authorities.”
When protest is negotiated, it can be diminished. It can be defanged. It can be dampened. Already, the protest movements that have defined this early part of the 21st century, particularly those we have seen in sports, have given way to too much agreement, if not outright commodification, which has led to the diminution of their messages. The sting of Colin Kaepernick’s organic kneeling during the national anthem to protest the unchecked extrajudicial killing of Black men was mediated to allow those who desired to pick up where Kaepernick was lopped off to do so but out of sight and off the field.
When protest is prohibited, it stands out. It resonates. It captures and demands our attention, our curiosity, and makes us investigate. When Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa crossed the finish line at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games while crossing his arms, many of us wondered why. We learned it was the gesture made by people from Oromia, the region home to Lilesa and Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, to protest a brutal government crackdown.
When the NBA, interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, returned amid the George Floyd uprising, it did so with “Black Lives Matter” emblazoned on its hardwood and players allowed to sport catchphrases and watchwords on their jerseys — as long as they were approved by the league. But none of that resonated as much as when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play a playoff game just before tip-off out of disgust after the police shooting in Kenosha, Wis., of a Black man, Jacob Blake.
The NBA jersey messages proved to be little more than sloganeering; this season, the league returned to its entertainment-first past. But the Bucks’ protest triggered other athletes to shut down their games and forced broadcasters to engage in discussions about race and policing before audiences that hoped sports would provide them sanctuary from the issues.
The decision last week by Olympic organizers only fertilized soil in which the quadrennial Games have forever been planted. The Olympics exist in opposition to their own pronouncements against politicization and protest. The Games, featuring jingoistic flag-waving, have always been nationalistic.
It is the height of disingenuousness for Olympic organizers to claim political purity and force it upon participants, to threaten punitive measures for those who again would — and should — use the Games to prove otherwise. Lilesa wasn’t an anomaly. And Smith and Carlos weren’t the first.
The 1906 Games included Irishman Peter O’Connor, forced to participate under the British flag during a spike in Ireland’s independence movement, unfurling a flag emblazoned with “Erin Go Bragh,” or “Ireland forever.”
And in between, many countries boycotted the Olympics, as the United States did the 1980 Moscow Games, to make political points about another country’s participation. African countries banded together to keep out South Africa, whose White leaders and citizens were ramping up their brutality against the indigenous Black population; South Africa’s 21-year Olympic ban helped to dismantle the country’s apartheid government.
None of those individuals or entities negotiated the right to protest with Olympic organizers. They just did what they thought was best and used the Olympic stage to broadcast their positions, repercussions be damned.
What the IOC last week did was what it has always done: invite protest. What athletes with something to say should do is what their predecessors have always done: accept the invitation with glee.