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The “Summer of Reckoning” brought the visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront of many athletic venues. The WNBA and NBA bubbles featured prominent signage while players wore jerseys emblazoned with social justice slogans along with the names of those who lost their lives to police brutality. Companies put out statements and added diversity officers in efforts to show commitment to ratifying the long history of systemic oppression. Major League Baseball, the NFL, and even NASCAR showed their support with signage and dedications, while professional hockey and tennis players showcased their stances individually with BLM shirts. It appeared that the world, or at least the sports world, was making their stance known in support of the many Black athletes. But, not so fast…
The 2020 Summer Olympic Games, hosted by Tokyo, were postponed due to COVID-19 but are set to begin this year. A little more than two months before the world’s top athletes travel to the capital of Japan, the International Olympic Committee has banned athletes from wearing “Black Lives Matter” apparel. According to the IOC, the ruling is keeping in line with its longstanding policy barring advertising, demonstration, and propaganda. Rule 50 states as follows:
1. Except as may be authorized by the IOC Executive Board on an exceptional basis, no form of advertising or other publicity shall be allowed in and above the stadia, venues, and other competition areas which are considered as part of the Olympic sites. Commercial installations and advertising signs shall not be allowed in the stadia, venues, or other sports grounds.
2. No kind of demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues, or other areas.
The intention of the rule is to “protect the neutrality of sport and the Olympic Games.” Even with the pre-existing mandate in place, the IOC launched a survey in December 2020 with 3,547 Olympic athletes regarding the ban of BLM. According to the survey, 67 percent of the athletes from 185 countries and representing all 41 Olympic sports supported the prohibition of protests on the podium. Seventy percent were opposed to protest in the athletic venues or at official ceremonies. This is an interesting take coming from a committee that condemned racism in its strongest terms back in June 2020. At that time, the resolution also described the Games as “a very powerful global demonstration against racism and for inclusivity.” At first glance, it appears that the resolution was for ornamental purposes although BLM slogans will be allowed during press conferences, team meetings, and interviews.
There haven’t been any announcements indicating what consequences athletes will face for violation of Rule 50, so it will be interesting to see who decides to rock the boat. What could be considered career suicide prior to the events of last summer could be a catapult by the time Closing Ceremonies take place. Nevertheless, the world was in a far less receptive state when Tommie Smith and John Carlos rebelled against the machine during the 1968 Games in Mexico City.
Representing a country that was still aggressively oppressing their race, Smith and Carlos chose the sport’s biggest stage to display their protests. Having finished first and third in the 200-meter dash, the American sprinters each raised a closed, black-gloved fist on the medal podium as the national anthem played. Both also wore black socks with no shoes during the presentation to display black poverty. While the images are engraved as one of the most iconic and overtly political statements in the history of the modern Games, the black socks and gloves were not the only forms of expression on display at that podium. Along with Smith and Carlos, Australian silver-medalist Peter Norman wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on his jacket. Smith also wore a black scarf around his neck to symbolize Black pride while Carlos wore his jacket unzipped to show solidarity with blue collar workers while also donning a beaded necklace. He later said the beads of the necklace represented “individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the Middle Passage.”
The IOC’s response was swift and severe. Headed by president Avery Brundage, an American, the committee demanded that the US Olympic Committee suspend the two sprinters and ban them from the Olympic Village immediately. When the USOC refused, they were threatened with expulsion of the entire track team, and ultimately dismissed Smith and Carlos. The backlash wasn’t limited to their dismissal. They were ripped to shreds in the media, labeled as “black-skinned storm troopers” and their families received death threats. As far as support from fellow Black American athletes at the Games, there was a divide. Boxer George Foreman, a gold medalist himself, belittled the protest by saying, “That’s for college kids.” Meanwhile the US women’s 400-meter relay team dedicated their victory lap to the excommunicated sprinters.
Although the fight for equal rights unfortunately still rages on, 2021 is different. To be specific, the 2021 athletes are different. No longer content to just be the entertainment, we have seen top athletes in all sports take a stand with no fear of ostracization and backlash. When it comes to the Summer Games, questions loom. Who will be the first to shake the table? Can there be solidarity amongst not just the American athletes, but also those worldwide who empathize with the plight of Blacks in the U.S.? Will the Olympics go as planned or will the US boycott until the rule is changed? We are not sure what the Games would look like without Black athletes, but we sure don’t want to find out either.
Generic slogans such as “peace,” “respect,” “solidarity,” “inclusion” and “equality” are allowed so don’t be surprised if you see some athletes try to straddle the fence, especially with no specificity as to the ramifications. Punishments will be determined on a case-by-case basis. But, whatever they may be, protesters will at least have legal support according to Brendan Schwab, the executive director of the World Players Association union. Speaking to the Associated Press, he said, “Any athlete sanctioned at the Tokyo Olympics will have the full backing of the World Players.”
Other athlete groups such as Athleten Deutschland (Germany) and Global Athlete echoed the same sentiments. After being bullied by the IOC back in 1968 with regard to Smith and Carlos, the USOC – which assured no punishment for athlete protests at the Olympic trials back in December – released a statement along with the Paralympic Committee following the IOC announcement. CEO Sarah Hirshland doubled down by saying their approach has not changed “nor has our commitment to elevating athlete expression and the voices of marginalized populations everywhere in support of racial and social justice.” Could the IOC’s stance prompt a boycott? The U.S. has only boycotted one Olympics: 1980 in Moscow.
One possible change agent that stands out is basketball star LeBron James should he decide to compete with the U.S. men’s basketball team. He has been unapologetically outspoken, and has the worldwide influence and brand ownership to stand up without fear of repercussions – a luxury that Smith and Carlos did not. Despite the backlash, both insist they would not change a thing about October 16, 1968. ”I went up there as a dignified Black man and said: ‘What’s going on is wrong,’” Carlos previously said. Smith added their protest “was a cry for freedom and for human rights. We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.”
Social media wasn’t around back then, but it has become a huge platform for athletes to share their personal thoughts. However, simply posting won’t do the trick. All eyes will be on Tokyo, but who is willing to fall on the sword? To be honest, with Coronavirus numbers surging in Japan and prompting states of emergency, stifling freedom of expression should be the last thing on their minds.
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