Letter Calls On Olympics Officials To Refrain From Punishing Athletes Who Protest At Games
Team USA’s Gwen Berry and Race Imboden, who were both put on probation following a protest at the 2019 Pan American Games, signed the letter.
150 athletes, activists, and people in academia, as well as 20 athletic organizations, signed a letter calling on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) “to make a stronger commitment to human rights, racial/social justice, and social inclusion” by not sanctioning athletes who protest at the upcoming games, including on medal podiums.
The letter takes issue with Rule 50, which was enshrined in the IOC charter in 1975 and bans political and social demonstrations at the Olympics, and its sister rule, section 2.2 of the IPC handbook.
On July 2, the IOC released new guidelines expanding when athletes “have the opportunity to express their views” to include “on the field of play prior to the start of the competition” as long as the protest is not “disruptive” and does not target any country, organization, or people specifically. Those new guidelines were put to the test on Wednesday, when the women’s Olympic soccer teams from the U.S. England, Sweden, Chile, and New Zealand all took a knee before their opening matches.
The signatories of the letter welcomed the changes but said they don’t “reflect a commitment to freedom of expression as a fundamental human right nor to racial and social justice in global sport.”
The rules still forbid acts of protest on the podiums, where athletes receive their medals. The letter implores officials to “refrain from imposing sanctions on athletes protesting … in any Olympic/Paralympic sites,” including the podium. The letter also calls on the officials to work with “independent human rights experts to align the rule with internationally recognized human rights frameworks,” including the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The IOC has long held the stance that Rule 50 preserves the neutrality of the games, an argument that signatories of the letter say doesn’t hold up.
“As a reflection of society at large, sport is not immune to the social ills – white supremacy and racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and xenophobia to name a few – that have created global inequities,” the letter states. It adds: “Staying neutral means staying silent, and staying silent means supporting ongoing injustice.”
Gwen Berry, a hammer thrower for Team USA, signed the letter. In June, Berry turned away from the American flag during the national anthem at the U.S. Olympic trials. Race Imboden, a U.S. Olympic fencer, also signed the letter. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee put both Berry and Imboden on a 12-month probation in 2019, after they protested on the medal podium at the Pan American Games.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos, both former sprinters for Team USA, signed the letter, as well. Smith and Carlos were sent home from the 1968 Mexico City Olympics after they raised their fists during the national anthem at the medals ceremony.
The demonstrations by the women’s soccer teams Wednesday are not expected to be the last. Jules Boykoff, a professor at Pacific University and former U.S. Olympic soccer player, told USA Today that “we’re living in what I would call the athlete empowerment era, and that’s a recipe for dissent at the Olympics.”