This week at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., Gwen Berry will step into a circle, seven feet in diameter, and see not only how far she can heave a hammer but also how far she can cast her voice. She will try to make it to the Tokyo Games at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, an event backed by the organization that once placed her on probation and, in her mind, put her career in jeopardy.
Berry credits her presence in Eugene to a unique relationship, one generated after she conducted a protest that once was denounced but since has been allowed — and now embraced — by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
“It’s one of the reasons why I’m still in this sport,” Berry said. “If it wasn’t for Color of Change, I probably would not be in this sport.”
This summer’s Olympics will see the convergence of the usual nationalistic spectacle and corporate sponsorship with the possibility — if not likelihood — of prohibited protest. No one in recent years has explored that tangle more deeply than Berry.
In 2019, Berry raised her fist atop the podium at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, in protest of America’s treatment of its Black citizens. The USOPC slapped her with one year of probation for violating Rule 50, the International Olympic Committee’s code prohibiting political demonstration at international events. As a result, Berry said, her sponsors, including Nike, did not renew her contracts.
In the spring of 2020, after the killing of George Floyd by police and the subsequent national racial reckoning, corporations outwardly shifted. Black circles became social media avatars, and “Black Lives Matters” popped up in their commercials. Meanwhile, Berry remained on probation and out of luck with sponsors even after she received a public and private apology from the USOPC.
Color of Change provided a novel arrangement between athlete and sponsor. Rather than paying Berry to endorse and promote its brand, Color of Change cajoled and pressured companies to support her so Berry could maintain a platform from which to advocate.
The partnership proved pivotal. This week, the apparel company Puma announced it signed Berry to a contract that will pay her $15,000, provide her equipment and apparel and place her in a campaign titled “She Moves Us.”
“We have the responsibility to support those calling for changes,” Puma marketing executive Adam Petrick said in an email.
Berry, who met with multiple apparel companies, said Puma was the most committed to her message. The company also sponsors Tommie Smith, the iconic sprinter who raised his fist in a black glove on the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, and WNBA player Skylar Diggins-Smith, who has been vocal about enhancing benefits for working mothers.
“It’s a great contrast to corporations like Samsung and Verizon and most importantly Nike, who has pushed out all of these evocative, emotional commercials supporting Colin Kaepernick and saying they support racial justice,” Color of Change Senior Campaigns Director Jade Magnus Ogunnaike said. “But they dropped Gwen Berry, and when we asked them to see her, they refused to pick her back up as a sponsor.
“It’s less about what a company shows on the outside and more about what’s happening on the inside. We found there were a ton of internal advocates who were extremely dedicated to ensuring that Gwen Berry had an athletic sponsorship.”
The financial margins for Olympic athletes who aren’t superstars are slim. It made Berry’s protest in Peru risky because corporate backlash essentially could cut off essential resources. She has heard from several athletes and agents interested in Color of Change. Ogunnaike said she wouldn’t rule out Color of Change working with another athlete.
“What I’ve learned about corporations in the past is that they’re only going to do what we force them to do,” Ogunnaike said. “Puma is a little different example.”
The domestic tides have shifted partly because of the conversation Berry helped to force by raising her fist. The USOPC, through its athletes’ council, has called for the abolition of Rule 50, in opposition to the IOC. It will allow protest at the trials, and it supported a recommendation by its Council on Social and Racial Justice to provide paraphernalia in support of causes such as Black Lives Matter.
Taliyah Brooks wore a Black Lives Matter patch on her sleeve while she ran her 100-meter hurdles heat, and high jumper Inika McPherson wore a button displaying the raised-fists podium demonstration of Smith and John Carlos on her warmup jacket. Berry and fencer Race Imboden, who was docked for kneeling at the same event, might well be the last athletes punished by the USOPC for protest. The impact of Berry’s actions in helping turn the cultural tide is clear.
“It makes me feel really good,” Berry said. “I feel like I conquered one small feat. There’s more important issues that have to be conquered. I’m just getting started.”
Her next step, she hopes, will be her second Olympics. Berry will enter the trials with confidence after a strong training period. A self-described “in-the-moment person,” she has not decided how she will demonstrate in Eugene, other than to “represent my people,” she said.
Should she place in the top three, Berry will wear a Team USA uniform in Tokyo. She said pulling it on before her other international meets has left her conflicted.
“For me, it’s always been something that’s been underlyingly uncomfortable, knowing that I’m rocking this big ‘USA’ across my chest when everything about America is to demean and to keep Black people at the bottom of the totem pole,” Berry said. “It has always, always, always been something I have been very uncomfortable with. I’m glad I’m able to say that without being punished or without being misunderstood.
“I try to compartmentalize it. I try to say, ‘The USA can mean a lot of things.’ I try to give it my own meaning, just to say that I do deserve to represent a country that my people have built uncompensated, have worked for and have survived throughout. I just have to give myself a different meaning of it, regardless of how uncomfortable I am with what it is sometimes.”
In Tokyo, where IOC rules will apply, Berry would face the prospect of more punishment for violating Rule 50. It will not affect what she wants to do or say.
“Absolutely not,” Berry said. “The IOC will see me, and they will hear me.”