The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is finding itself in the midst of an ongoing debate within the sports industry: professional athletes expressing their right to protest against certain societal injustices through kneeling or raising a fist in the air. The IOC’s solution is a ban on any and all protests from occuring at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
The Olympics are no stranger to controversial protests, at the 1968 Mexico City Games, African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos were awarded both bronze and gold medals, and while on the winner’s podiums they proceeded to take off their shoes and raise a fist wearing a black leather glove in the air in solidarity with the Black Panther movement. The podium protest ended in the IOC expelling both Smith and Carlos and stripping them of their awards, however, since then they have been inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame, which makes the IOC’s recent protest ban even more confusing.
The IOC’s new guidelines state that displaying any sort of political messaging, making gestures of a political nature, or refusal to follow the ceremony’s predetermined/traditional protocol will result in serious consequences, as all of those actions are a part of the official ban.
“When an individual makes their grievances, however legitimate, more important than the feelings of their competitors and the competition itself, the unity and harmony as well as the celebration of sport and human accomplishment are diminished. Failure to abide by the guidelines will result in the athlete’s action being evaluated by their respective National Olympic Committee, International Federation, and the IOC, and disciplinary action will be taken on a case-by-case basis as necessary,” according to the guidelines.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos
Immediately after the news was released, fans, athletes, and those in the media were quick to call out the IOC’s hypocrisy within the new guidelines, stating that while the podiums and playing fields need to remain politically neutral, the IOC as an organization itself is able to take any political bias it pleases. Why are countries able to come and boast their national anthems and flags, but not protest about the injustices actually occurring within those countries, especially during the most popular televised sport events in history? Nancy Armour, a politics writer for USA Today, discussed this issue in an op-ed last Thursday (1/9/20) where she encapsulated the opposing view:
“The truth is, it’s not the mixing of politics and sports that [IOC president Thomas] Bach and the IOC don’t like. It’s just fine for Bach to lobby for the issues he finds important. Or to foster good relationships with world leaders who might someday bankrupt their economies in exchange for sparkling venues, five-star hotels, and Olympic traffic lanes that allow IOC members to avoid the general populace on the roads and in the airports. But God forbid athletes should stay silent about racism, homophobia, inequality, or murderous regimes. You know, issues that have a direct effect on their lives.”
Armour’s point also called on hundreds of social media users who found themselves just as upset about the new guidelines. One of the guaranteed perks of living in a free country is having the right to speak up against/for any issue that you want because that’s something you earn as an individual with freedom. When major organizations protect the rights of big businesses and those in power, it begs the question how much “freedom” is too much freedom for average civilians in the eyes of the government. Is “freedom of speech” more of a formality than an actual law that all Americans, and any other free citizen around the world, are just supposed to accept?
It also has created a narrative surrounding the rights of professional athletes. Athletes are normally just viewed as entertainers who serve the purpose of showing their skills on the field, and bringing home trophies for off the field. Their voices don’t matter, their political views, opinions etc. none of it actually matters as long as they can play the game.
However, the world is a place of constant debate, disagreement, and bigotry. When those with monumental platforms speak up against injustices, it opens up a conversation amongst everybody on any level of power. No matter what “side” they’re on, the fact that someone with such a huge following is strictly meant to play a game and remain silent, is archaic in itself. Especially when the athletes themselves are minorities, from the outside, restrictive guidelines such as these show that the IOC is only concerned with minority rights when it’s regarding their presence in the Olympic Games, and the ratings they can bring in.
Diallo Brooks, the director of People for the American Way, a political advocacy group, created a Twitter thread this past week that opened up an entire conversation about the presence of minority bodies versus minority voices in sporting events.
“Young men/women of color who play sports are more than just entertainers, and they should not be penalized for speaking out peacefully against injustice. They must be allowed to have a voice. And when their voices are threatened, we have to raise our own and stand with them.”
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at email@example.com.