With athlete protests and political messages seen all too often in the athletic arena, they will remain banned at the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee said Wednesday. The IOC took this stand in response to results from a survey conducted among competitors.
That means raising a fist on the podium — like American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously did at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics — or taking a knee would still risk punishment at the Tokyo Games this year.
The IOC said it surveyed more than 3,500 athletes over the past year and that the vast majority stated it was “not appropriate to demonstrate or express their views” on the field of play or at the opening or closing ceremony.
The survey also showed 67% of respondents disapproved of podium demonstrations.
In its report, the IOC said, “Although the restriction imposed by Rule 50 may appear too sweeping, especially if compared to some sports organizations which allow expression in support of social (as opposed to political) causes, there are significant difficulties that an organization as diverse and universal as the IOC would face in distinguishing between admissible and inadmissible causes. For this reason, a blanket of neutrality is deemed an appropriate and proportionate solution, including from a human rights perspective, given the risk of politicizing the IOC and alienating countries or athletes.”
However, a global union and activist group in Germany is already promising legal support to athletes who make political or social justice protests at the Tokyo Olympics.
The pledges came one day after the International Olympic Committee confirmed its long-standing ban on “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” on the field of play, medal podiums or official ceremonies.
In a statement, another athlete group, Global Athlete, encouraged athletes to “not allow outdated ‘sports rules’ to supersede your basic human rights.” It said the survey’s methods were flawed.
The IOC has not said what consequences athletes may face for protesting, but a “proportionate” range of punishments will be drafted before the games.
Smith and Carlos were both expelled from the 1968 Olympics after their salute.
The IOC’s “Rule 50” says that “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” But the committee reviewed the policy after professional American athletes protested their own national anthem.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee said in December it will not take action if athletes raise their fists or kneel during the national anthem at their event trials before Tokyo.
The American Olympic body, which inducted Smith and Carlos into its Hall of Fame in 2019, eased its stance after athletes asked for the right to express themselves on racial and social justice issues.
While the USOPC guidelines allow athletes to wear apparel showing phrases such as “Black Lives Matter,” the language is more limited in the IOC guidance published Wednesday. A list of approved words for the Tokyo Olympics for T-shirts and other items of clothing was given. These words include, “Peace, solidarity, respect, equality, and inclusion.”
The survey and research conducted by the IOC Athletes’ Commission was guided by independent experts on human rights and social sciences, according to sources.
The words “inclusion and equality” will also be included in the Olympic Oath read at the opening ceremony in Tokyo on July 23, as a concession to the times.
It will be interesting to watch this play-out.