Many still remember the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. One of the most powerful images from those games was the podium for the 200-meter sprint. Tommie Smith (1st in world record time) and John Carlos (3rd) each raised a black-gloved clenched fist during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” all three athletes, including Peter Norman of Australia, wore human rights badges on their team jackets.
The fists were initially a salute to the Black Power movement of the time, but Smith later revised the gesture in a book, claiming the demonstration was a human rights salute. The Olympics is supposed to be neutral, but politics does work its way in, and Smith and Carlos’s moment is certainly one of the most political in memory. In fact, it is one of the most iconic protest gestures in the history of sport.
The IOC, through its Rule 50, has for decades stated that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic site, venue or other area.” In the fact of increasing calls to abolish Rule 50, the IOC Athletes’ Commission has recently drafted its Rule 50 guidelines. In part, these guidelines read:
“The unique nature of the Olympic Games enables athletes from all over the world to come together in peace and harmony. We believe that the example we set by competing with the world’s best while living in harmony in the Olympic Village is a uniquely positive message to send to an increasingly divided world. This is why it is important, on both a personal and a global level, that we keep the venues, the Olympic Village and the podium neutral and free from any form of political, religious or ethnic demonstrations.”
The three-page document then outlines a framework for how athletes can express their views as long as they respect the diversity of ideas and opinions. The IOC holds all representatives (from athletes to heads of state) accountable for following these rules to celebrate athletic accomplishment within the spirit of unity and harmony.
Behavior must be kept in-check
Behavior that is not allowed at the Olympic Games includes the following:
- Making political gestures with hands or kneeling
- Refusing to follow ceremonial protocols
- Displaying political armbands or messages
Places demonstrations are not allowed
There are no demonstrations in Olympic venues, including:
- During the medal ceremonies
- During the official opening and closing ceremonies
- On the field of play
- In the Olympic Village
Any protest or demonstration must follow the local laws pertaining to other non-Olympic parts of the host country.
What can athletes do?
Actually, they can still do a lot:
- On digital media and platforms as well as traditional media
- At team meetings
- During press conferences and interviews in the International Broadcast Center and the Main Media Centre
2021 may test these rules
The year 2020 was unprecedented in many ways, but the protests held in support of Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump and other issues have been some of the largest since the 1960s. Even before 2020, Colin Kaepernick started a movement among NFL players to address these issues by kneeling on the sidelines. It is now common for athletes, all professional leagues and even owners to highlight BLM and many other causes – including a protest by US.S. Olympian Gwen Barry at the 2019 Pan Am Games. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee has recently announced that it will not punish athletes who make political protests at the 2021 Olympic Games – a radical departure from the position it took with respect to the protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968.
Despite increasing pressure, the IOC has refused to abolish its Rule 50, which will likely be violated in Tokyo by athletes who now are comfortable using their public opportunities to highlight societal ills and issues. Athletes in Tokyo – in addition to dealing with the pressure of competing at the Olympic Games – may also find themselves dealing with disciplinary actions taken against them by the IOC for perceived Rule 50 violations.