AP Exclusive: USOPC hears athletes, won't punish protesters

Cover Image
Photo credit FILE - In this Aug. 10, 2019, file photo, Gwen Berry of the United States waves as she is introduced at the start of the women's hammer throw final during athletics competition at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. In the summer of 2019, U.S Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland reprimanded Berry and fencer Race Imboden for violating Rule 50, which prohibits inside-the-lines protests at the games, after Berry raised her fist and Imboden kneeled on the medals stand at the Pan-Am Games in Peru. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)
By The Associated Press

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee heeded calls from American athletes by announcing Thursday that it won’t sanction them for raising their fists or kneeling on the medals stand at next year’s Tokyo Games and beyond.

It’s a response to a set of recommendations from a USOPC athlete group that seeks changes to the much-maligned Rule 50 of the IOC Olympic Charter, which prohibits inside-the-lines protests at the games.

It was this rule that most famously led to the ouster of U.S. medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City after the sprinters raised their fists on the medals stand to protest racial inequality in the United States.

“Prohibiting athletes to freely express their views during the Games, particularly those from historically underrepresented and minoritized groups, contributes to the dehumanization of athletes that is at odds with key Olympic and Paralympic values,” said the athlete statement that accompanied the recommendations.

The athletes seek changes that would bring the policy closer to those in major U.S. and international leagues, most of which relaxed their rules regarding demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd's death in May at the hands of Minneapolis police and the unrest that ensued. NBA players, for instance, pushed repeatedly for assurances they could use their platform to address social justice issues.

“You see athletes in sports leagues becoming aware of the power they have in driving social change,” said Yannick Kluch, a sports culture professor at Rowan University who helped the athletes tackle these issues.

The IOC has defended the rule, explaining that political statements have no place inside the competition venues at the Olympics. Though the IOC has called on its own athlete committee to explore possible changes to the rule, the call for action from the country that wins the most medals and funnels the most money to the Olympic movement stands out as the most high-profile pushback against the ban to date.

The USOPC timed the announcement to fall on Human Rights Day, which has been observed on Dec. 10 by the United Nations since 1948.

“Not only has the U.S. athlete family been waiting on something that speaks to who we are, but we know the world was waiting on us for guidance as to how we can get this right,” said Moushaumi Robinson, a 2004 Olympic gold medalist in track who led the athletes group.

The USOPC's CEO, Sarah Hirshland, said she expects criticism from the IOC and others, but "we can’t walk the walk as a movement if we don’t look at this issue, in particular.”

The USOPC decision, which also will apply to Olympic trials, comes in the wake of a 19-month stretch during which its willingness to adhere to the IOC directive became untenable.

In the summer of 2019, Hirshland reprimanded American hammer thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden for violating Rule 50, after Berry raised her fist and Imboden kneeled on the medals stand at the Pan-Am Games in Peru.

Then, during the period of social unrest that followed Floyd’s killing by a white police officer while the Black man was in handcuffs, Berry called out the USOPC for being hypocritical when it announced it would follow the lead of many sports leagues by increasing efforts to address issues of racial inequality in the U.S.

The USOPC established a handful of working groups led by athletes who tackled different aspects of social injustice in the Olympic movement and society in general. Conclusions from the group on protests and demonstrations were the most highly anticipated.

That group, which sought input from more than 40 people, wants wholesale changes in the IOC rule that reads, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

“Often, you hear people saying ‘I don’t want to mix politics with sports,’” Kluch said. “But these are two (false) assumptions. The first is that human rights and race and social justice are political. They’re about human dignity, not politics. It’s also very clear that human rights are not political but have been heavily politicized.”

The group is still debating what sort of gestures and demonstrations it would recommend to be allowed. The USOPC says it won't discipline athletes for “respectful” and “peaceful” demonstrations, and Hirshland said, “I can't imagine that kneeling or raising a fist would be considered" inappropriate.

The federation also wants to give athletes clarity on the way the rule is enforced. In the past, when an athlete has run afoul of Olympic rules, the IOC has largely left it to the athlete’s national federation to dish out the punishment, which can include banishing the athlete from the games. The USOPC’s refusal to sanction an athlete would put the IOC in position of having to determine punishment and figure out who would administer it.

The IOC has sent a survey to athletes across the globe for their opinions on Rule 50 and other issues. Its athlete committee, which includes American Kikkan Randall, will use that feedback to make its own recommendation about the future of Rule 50, The results are expected in the first quarter of 2021.