Fans have watched as protests have become a sports fixture in recent years — from Colin Kaepernick taking a knee in 2016 to the Milwaukee Bucks refusing to take the court last year to track-and-field star Gwen Berry turning her back on the U.S. flag during last month’s Olympic trials. But the Summer Games in Tokyo later this month are poised to take the slogan-waving, fist-raising and anthem-protesting to a new level.
Amid growing pressure from activist athletes around the world, the International Olympic Committee on Friday officially loosened its restrictions on protests and political expression for the upcoming games in Japan.
The IOC action comes as leagues like the NBA and WNBA have embraced athlete demonstrations, and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee in December relaxed some of its rules against political expression during competition or on the podium.
The IOC changes don’t go as far as the U.S. alterations do — athletes are still told they cannot protest or demonstrate on the awards platforms, as Berry did during the trials last month. But athletes in Tokyo will be given a greater license to demonstrate than ever before.
Politics and protests have been a part of the landscape at every Olympics over the last century, as international conflicts and clashes between political ideologies have played out on the fields and in the medals counts, and athletes have seized on the global spotlight to deliver their messages to the world.
With the rise of athlete activism, in the U.S. in particular, and the new loosened rules, Tokyo is likely to see as many memorable protests as it is world records, some observers predict.
“The potential is always there,” said Dr. Amy Bass, a professor of sports studies at Manhattanville College and the author of the book, “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: the 1968 Olympic Games and the Making of the Black Athlete.” “What we do know is that a re-emergence of the activist athlete is vocal and powerful. Whether that translates into the Olympic Games, we will have to wait and see.”
In addition to the ongoing ban on podium displays, athletes are still being told that demonstrations will be disallowed during opening or closing ceremonies, in the Olympic village and during competition.
But the IOC is allowing athletes to demonstrate before their events begin, so long as the message isn’t disruptive, which the committee describes as “physical interference” of another athlete, causing physical harm to any person or property, occurring during another team’s national anthem or interfering with another athlete’s concentration.
The change comes after a survey from the IOC asked 3,500 athletes for their thoughts on political expression during the competition or during the opening and closing ceremonies. The survey found 70% of athletes were opposed to protests during those moments, while 67% disapproved of podium demonstrations.
“The new guidelines are a result of our extensive consultation with the global athletes’ community,” IOC AC Chair Kirsty Coventry said in a statement. “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. This was the wish of a big majority of athletes in our global consultation.”
The IOC hasn’t laid out detailed repercussions for political protests outside of permitted moments, although the committee said in a release that each incident will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. The considerations could include the degree of disruption or whether another athlete complained about the expression.
In the past, the IOC or individual country’s Olympic committees have handed down competition bans or put athletes on a probationary period to prevent further protests.
In 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two Black members of the U.S. Olympics team, raised black-gloved fists on the medal podium during the national anthem, the pair of sprinters were sent home from the Games, and the demonstration — hugely controversial in a deeply divided America at the time — took a severe toll on the track careers of both men.
After Berry, who is also Black, raised a fist after winning gold at the 2019 Pan-American Games, the USOPC applied a 12-month probation period against other protests that was later rescinded when the USOPC changed its policy. Berry told CBS Sports in June 2020 that her decision cost her $50,000 in sponsorships.
“It’s not a danger-free zone,” said Dr. Mark Dyreson, a sports history professor at Penn State who will appear on The Washington Times’ “History As It Happens” podcast this week. “You could lose a lot of money, you could lose contracts, you could become a public pariah.”
With the basis for entry into the Olympic Games being national identity, politics are frequently at play, said Dr. Bass. In the 1936 Games in Berlin, for instance, Jesse Owens, a Black man, won four gold medals and was celebrated as a rebuke of Nazi Germany’s White supremacy. He wasn’t the only Black athlete at that Games, though: 18 Black Americans won 14 medals in Berlin, only to return home to a country steeped in its own deep-seated racism.
Geopolitics have inevitably served as backdrop for the athletic competition. In 1956, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland boycotted to protest the Soviet Union’s handling of the Hungarian Revolution. And during a water polo match between the Soviets and Hungary, a Hungarian player was punched by a Soviet player, coining the competition as the “Blood in the Water” match.
The U.S. and several of its allies boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, so the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Games in response.
“Sport is essentially and inherently political,” Dr. Dyreson said.
For Smith and Carlos, raising their fists on the podium in Mexico City came in response to months of unrest in the U.S. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in April 1968. Riots followed his death in cities across the country. The 1968 Olympics were held in October, with that division in the minds of Smith and Carlos.
Ahead of the 2021 Olympics, some athletes have carried on with their example, drawing attention to systemic racism through demonstrations. Berry held a t-shirt over her head during the national anthem at the Olympic trials. And sprinter Noah Lyles raised a gloved fist before his 100-meter final at the trials.
“We’re still dying in the streets,” Lyles said after his race. “Just because we stopped talking about it in the news or just because the Olympics are going on, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. I am Black.”
Under the IOC’s new guidelines, Lyles’ pre-race protest would OK in Tokyo. Other demonstrations won’t be, such as kneeling or raising a fist on the podium during a medal ceremony.
But from subtle to overt, expect political expression to be an inescapable part of the upcoming Games.
“The mantra ‘stick to sports’ by some pundits when an athlete speaks out ignores that politics are part and parcel of sports,” Dr. Bass said. “Sport doesn’t transcend politics or culture — it is a stakeholder in both. Athletes have beliefs and have built a platform to express them. That’s sports.”