By Mary Atkinson
The delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympic games are already ablaze with controversy due to concerns about cost and the ongoing pandemic and the IOC’s decision to continue to implement Rule 50, prohibiting “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” throughout the summer games; specifically highlighting the prohibition of statements such as “Black Lives Matter” on athlete clothing at Olympic venues and the acts of taking a knee or raising a fist. But, approving phrases, such as “peace”, “respect”, “solidarity”, “inclusion” and “equality”, risks outrage, protest, and allegations that the Olympics are dreadfully out of touch.
This decision created immediate outrage amongst sporting communities and athletes both Olympic and non. Those vocalising outrage included British and American sprinters Adam Gemili and Sha’Carri Richardson, various national and multinational sporting associations representing Olympic athletes such as, Global Athlete, which is led by Olympic champion cyclist Callum Skinner, who commented the approach was “archaic”, and Athleten Deutschland, who stated they believe “Athletes should be free to peacefully declare their support for the values of our free and democratic society at any time. Peaceful protest must be possible”.
With managing director Johannes Herber adding that legal support would be provided to any German athlete who “decides to peacefully stand up for fundamental values such as the fight against racism during the Olympic Games”. Similarly, World Athletics president Sebastian Coe came out against the move stating that athletes should have the right to protest.
Organisations such as the USOPC also recently stated they would not sanction Olympians who protest “peacefully and respectfully […] in support of racial and social justice for all human beings” with many other organisations concurring.
Although the IOC surveyed athletes, finding that 67% surveyed wished to keep Rule 50 in place, the significant opposition from both athletes and sporting associations suggests otherwise. Adam Gemili suggested in a recent interview that the IOC’s surveying was flawed and did not accurately capture popular opinion from athletes of different races and ethnicities “I think the IOC knew exactly what it was doing.” The survey conducted by the IOC was based upon the responses of 3547 athletes, 55% Olympians, 45% elite athletes with 14% of responses coming from China, 9% from Japan and South Korea, with a further 31% from Western Europe, the USA and Australia. Certainly not the most diverse sample possible.
Gemili additionally emphasised the IOC’s hypocrisy through the celebration of the athletes who made Black Power salutes at the Mexico Games in 1968, a protest which is now considered an iconic moment in Olympic history, whilst banning modern-day athletes for actively supporting the BLM movement and racial equality. This has been pointed out by fans alongside past hypocrisies such as the IOC allowing Vera Casalavska to protest against the USSR at the 1968 games while Tommie Smith and John Carlos were punished harshly. As well as double standards revealed by phrases like “Stop Asian Hate” being seemingly permitted under recent IOC statements whilst “Black Lives Matter” is banned. Leaving Rule 50 to seemingly demonstrate IOC’s hypocrisy in its unequal application.
The IOC’s neutrality has faced significant scrutiny in the past, with the 1936 Olympics in Berlin often used as an example. The games were used as a platform by Hitler and the Nazi party to spread their views, with political acts such as Nazi salutes permitted, and heavily present and Jewish athletes excluded from the German Olympic team. Additionally, the ban on Japan and Germany at the Olympic Games in London 1948, should be considered an inherently political act, which was allowed by the IOC. If the IOC were truly politically neutral, Rule 50 in place to maintain this neutrality, should this have been allowed?
With major associations such as the USOPC and Athleten Deutschland declaring support for athletes who decide to show support for BLM and racial equality, by actions such as taking the knee at the Olympics this summer does the IOC’s rule 50 assertion risk larger-scale protests than before? Athletes such as Gemili certainly think so, stating he believes “all hell will break loose” if the ban on protesting on the podium is upheld going as far as to say “I would be happy to take a knee if I was successful at the Olympics and I had that opportunity” and with many other athletes predicted to compete in the Olympics unafraid of protest such as, Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka who wore the names of victims of police brutality on her face masks at each day of the US Open in 2020 and, who was recently fined 15,000 USD at the French Open for refusing to do media appearances due to the mental health effects on athletes before withdrawing, protests could be inevitable. The IOC is encouraging potential large-scale protest through its archaic and restrictive rules.
Athletes and fans have also pointed out that the ban on symbols associated with BLM is itself a political decision. Which has been viewed as the IOC restricting the support for human rights campaigns. The fact is many other sports, and sporting bodies have embraced symbols associated with BLM as acts of support for human rights rather than political campaigns. Seen particularly through how the act of taking the knee has become commonplace and to an extent even encouraged in sports such as Football and Formula One, in contrast to the IOC’s ban, emphasising how outdated their approach is. A viewpoint that is widely held, with Tommie Smith who himself was punished for protesting in 1968 joining Callum Skinner in calling the IOC’s rules “archaic” in a recent episode of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.
The impact of the assertion of Rule 50 on athlete protests at the Olympics will not be fully seen until the summer, however, it certainly adds controversy to an already controversial Olympic games, which are facing large scale calls for its cancellation due to high Covid-19 case rates in Japan, with public opinion not in its favour and, medical associations such as The Tokyo Medical Practitioners speaking out against the games. With these controversies clouding the Tokyo games, there is the risk that the purpose of the games, as an international sporting event, which unites countries in spite of geopolitical tensions, will be lost.
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