The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee has come to the defense of shot putter Raven Saunders‘ “respectful” podium protest as the International Olympic Committee weighs whether to impose sanctions on the track-and-field star.
Saunders, who placed second in the shot put, crossed her arms above her head in an “X” on the podium Sunday as she posed for photos with the gold and bronze medalists, a gesture now under review by the IOC as a potential breach of its rules against protests on the medal stand.
“Per the USOPC’s delegation terms, the USOPC conducted its own review and determined that Raven Saunders’ peaceful expression in support of racial and social justice that happened at the conclusion of the ceremony was respectful of her competitors and did not violate our rules related to demonstration,” the U.S. committee said Monday in a statement.
At the same time, the organization acknowledged that “Team USA is governed by the Olympic Charter and rules set forth by the IOC for Tokyo 2020.”
IOC spokesperson Mark Adams said at Monday’s press conference that the committee was seeking “further information” from the USOPC.
“We’ve seen obviously the public opinion, and we’re in touch with them. We’ve written them a letter asking for some further information to be able to evaluate the next steps if any that should be taken,” Adams said. “Obviously the games are held under the Olympic charter and the laws of the Olympic movement, so let’s wait and see what the clarification we get from USOPC.”
Saunders, 25, told reporters afterward that her gesture represented “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.”
China’s Gong Lijiao won the gold, and Saunders said she waited until after the playing of the Chinese national anthem to avoid being disrespectful, The New York Times reported.
The protest was not spontaneous. Saunders said that “a lot of the athletes, we talked about what was going to be our stance, what do we stand for.”
“X pretty much represents the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet,” she said on NBC’s “Today.” “I’m a Black female. I’m queer. I talk about mental health awareness. I deal with depression, anxiety and PTSD a lot. So me personally, I represent being really at that intersection. So for me, I decided to use my platform to really speak up for all of those people.”
Under the IOC’s Rule 50, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas,” but the organization relaxed the rules for Tokyo, indicating that it would allow more leeway while still forbidding protests during the medal ceremony.
“While the guidelines offer new opportunities for athletes to express themselves prior to the competition, they preserve the competitions on the Field of Play, the ceremonies, the victory ceremonies and the Olympic Village,” IOC Athletes’ Commission Chair Kirsty Coventry said in a statement. “This was the wish of a big majority of athletes in our global consultation.”
Saunders tweeted after the ceremony: “Let them try and take this medal. I’m running across the border even though I can’t swim,” followed by a laughter emoji.