Political protests from the podium banned by the IOC; do you agree?

July 6, 2021 • 11:45 am

The Olympics aren’t supposed to be political, but that went by the board a while back. Countries have pulled out of the Olympics on political grounds, and Olympic athletes have made political protests from the medal podium, a gesture now outlawed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).  Below is an MSNBC news report on the fracas caused by Gwen Berry, who, on the podium after placing third in the hammer throw in the U.S Track and Field trials, turned her back on the U.S. flag and refused to pay attention to the national anthem. This was a protest against  “police brutality and systemic racism.”

As the video shows, however, the anthem wasn’t scheduled to be played during the medal ceremony, so Berry was partly blindsided. Nevertheless, she performed a similar gesture during the Pan Am Games in 2019. For that the US Olympic Committee (USOC) suspended her. Since then, they’ve changed their rules, so that the USOC now allows the exercise of free speech during the games.  That puts the USOC at odds with the Big Guns on the IOC. To their credit, the Biden administration (via Jen Psaki) defended Berry’s gesture.

And the NYT article (click on screenshot).

It’s not clear what will happen if Berry or anybody else violates the IOC’s rules; they say they will deal with it on a case by case basis. Conceivably they could strip violators of their medals.

What do I think of this? Well, in America I think it’s fine to demonstrate; that is, after all, free speech. I myself did something similar in June of 1971, when I became valedictorian of William and Mary’s graduating class. The valedictorian traditionally said a few words onstage, but the College knew I was a hippie Leftist and decided just to call out my name when the award (“The Lord Botetourt Medal”) was given for academic achievement. When they did that, I rose up from the audience, wearing a black armband to commemorate Kent State and to protest the invasion of Cambodia, and I raised my fist for a short while.  That cost me a summer job, as a marine institute where I had applied to work decided they wouldn’t hire a radical long-haired protestor. So be it.

What about the Olympics? I can see their point:

The way I.O.C. leaders see it, they must navigate the interests of athletes from more than 200 nations, many with differing political viewpoints, and deter anyone from taking attention from another athlete’s rare chance to stand on a medal podium.

They argue that one athlete’s demonstration in support of equality and human rights could offend another. For example, Israeli athletes could perceive a gesture demanding Palestinian statehood as support for entities that have called for the destruction of Israel.

And I’d hate to see the Olympics become a fracas of competing political gestures when the Games are supposed to bring people together. On the other hand, very few will want to protest, and at any rate I always come down on the side of free speech. If an athlete suffers professionally for making a gesture, like not getting on that Wheaties box, well, that’s the price they pay. Let it be added, though, that the IOC surveyed 3,547 athletes about whether “political speech and other forms of demonstration should NOT occur on the field of competition”, and 2/3 of them agreed.

So my view is “let a thousand opinions bloom on the Olympic podium”. But I do understand why this looks unseemly, and hope it doesn’t happen every time. I doubt that it will.

Tell you what—let’s take a poll:

Should the International Olympic Committee ban political gestures from the podium?

View Results

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43 thoughts on “Political protests from the podium banned by the IOC; do you agree?

  1. There are different sorts of gestures. This passive one of not saluting the flag, something I consider totally stupid anyway, is a passive one. It’s not like she’s flipping the flag a finger (which I would not do). That would be an active gesture. They are different, it seems to me.

    1. When you. have to begin defining different types of gestures or protest you are just digging a deeper hole. Makes no sense.

      The Olympics has always been covered in controversy and hypocrisy. Just look at them now – no politics please but wave the flags all over the place. Also play national anthems as you give out metals. Drugs became such a problem they had to kick some countries out. Drugging became a national event for some countries such as the Soviet Union and East Germany. It also became such a contest for who got the most metals, the network covering the games spent a great deal of time just giving us the metal count on a daily basis. Many years ago we required all the contestants to be amateurs. No professionals allowed. Russia had no such thing and nobody was a professional. Who was amateur and who was not – it was a mess. So finally they gave up on that and said every athlete could participate regardless. In some cases it made some contests a joke. Who really wants to see professional basketball where the Americans wipe out all other teams. What fun. In fact, team sports at the Olympics is kind of a bad idea. Sports that must be judged are also a bad idea.

      In the end they should discourage any protests but let people make fools of themselves if they must. The competition to hold the olympics has become a joke as well. They should stop all of that and put it in one place permanently. Corruption in the Olympics is nearly as bad as college sports.

      1. As I pointed out in my earlier comment, there are a number of ways in which the form of protest matters. One important measure is if it takes away from the experience of the other athletes. Making a mockery of the medal podium would be disgusting, IMHO. Why should the other athletes pay any price at all because of your protest? I am less concerned about upsetting the viewers but it is a matter of degree.

      2. That covers a lot of issues, but I am generally agreeable to them. The Olympics are weird and contradictory, but I would personally prefer athletes keep their protest gestures to statements before and after the medal ceremonies.

        1. Yes, I realize that did cover lots about the Olympics but to remove politics from it would be to remove it all together. So much of the games are politics from determining who gets to hold them to all the IOC corruption and beyond. Go back to the 72 Olympics to see the biggest demonstration of all by muslims against jews. It becomes a place for every bad group to make some kind of statement. It will continue as long as they have them. People hardly ever change and they sure do not improve.

    1. Yeah, I have the same idea, I think, but I might use different words. Political gestures like saluting your country’s flag will be deemed “not political”. The rule will not be enforced even-handedly. The pattern is all too familiar. Support for the powers that be is always neutral, just-the-facts-ma’am, objective — according to the powers that be and their supporters.

  2. One does wonder how they’re going to determine what is – and what is not – a political protest rather than a personal picking of the nose.
    Let me guess – it’s going to be a decision taken after the event, by the most vocal members of the Committee. Then there will be a public slanging match and eventually it will end up in court with the Committee representing the government of the US (that’s a point – are they legally an expression of the US Government?) and the constitutional protection of free speech coming into force. Which itself will generate far more publicity than just ignoring it would have generated.
    I wonder how the Formula One teams deal with it. I assume that it’s a straight matter of (private) contract between the individual drivers and their nothing-to-do-with-government employers : Clause : thou shalt display the sponsors logos – including that extremely valuable throat-patch – during all trackside interviews. […] Clause192.168.1.1 : thou shalt not make political statements, defined as [rhubarb, rhubarb]. Corollary : Hamilton negotiated his diversity protest with the F1 authorities and his team, and it’s now written into everyone’s contracts. We know who is the bear, and who is the slick-furred rabbit in that relationship – unless Hamilton loses this year’s championship. Then we’ll see if the F1 authorities have a commitment to (whatever the wording Hamilton argued for is) or a commitment to keeping their biggest publicity-puller happy.

    1. If someone is doing something to make a political point, how likely are they to deny it?
      “Gee, Coach I wasn’t kneeling during the anthem, I kinda just stumbled and rested” is the sort of thing a kid might say when they were just doing it for fun and it dawns on them there are going to be consequences. Adult athletes aren’t in that category.

  3. I voted Yes because I think podium protests detract from the experience of the non-protesting athletes and their fans. Why should a winner be upstaged by another athletes who, in essence, is saying that their cause is more important than anything else?

    On the other hand, armbands and such are ok if they are not too distracting and carried throughout the competition. Whatever attention and comment they attract is mostly done by the time they reach the podium.

  4. Oooh, toughie. There are good interests on both sides.

    How about this compromise: allow athletes to protest only when their own anthem is being played (i.e. when their nation won the gold medal). This allows them to protest their own nation’s policies without allowing them to disrespect another.

    I’m okay with folks like Ms. Berry protesting the U.S. Flag. But it kinda goes against the spirit of the Olympics if the freedom to protest is used by athletes of one nation to offend another. Part of the point is to set aside international differences and compete as individuals (or teams) against each other, regardless of what our nations may do. Americans flipping the bird to the Russian flag or Saudis doing the same to the Israeli flag really goes against that spirit.

    1. …allow athletes to protest only when their own anthem is being played…

      I await with interest the Chinese and North Korean athletes’ protests.

      To oversimplify, flags and anthems represent the people of a country, and an athlete’s presence at the games is possible in part because of their fellow citizens’ support of the sport rather than the individual athlete’s politics, so I tend to oppose political demonstrations. (This is a consideration to bear in mind, rather than a bulletproof argument.)

  5. I completely understand why athletes want to use their celebrity as means for fighting injustice and I admire their dedication to a cause at cost to themselves.

    But I absolutely hate mixing politics with sports. Sports is my escape from politics and day-to-day life.
    The more politics in sports, the less I will watch it.

    1. I understand that it’s your preference that athletes should shut up and dribble. But that doesn’t answer the questions — should the IOC adopt rules prohibiting such protests (or punishing competitors who do so)?

      And keep in mind that some athletes have had politics thrust upon them — just ask Jackie Robinson or Muhammad Ali.

  6. I voted “Yes”, though it would be hard to enforce. Although most such protests that I can think of have been of black Americans protesting against their own country (back to Tommie Smith at Mexico City in 1968), unless strongly discouraged it could easily degenerate into athletes protesting against other athletes’ countries, and if that happened it probably wouldn’t be long before people were storming off the podium mid-anthem, punching each other, and drawing their respective nations into high-level diplomatic confrontations. Probably the respect that top athletes have for each other as competitors is what’s kept that from happening up to now, but if allowed, it could quickly become common and the magic of the occasion would be lost, and extremely hard to recover.

  7. The captive audience for these kinds of narrow national protests is multinational, and includes athletes who have worked and hoped for years to have this moment. For some, it may be considered the highlight of their life.

    It strikes me then as roughly analogous to someone attending a wedding standing up when the minister asks “Does anyone know of any reason these two should not be lawfully wed?” and giving a brief monologue on some of the inequalities inherent in the married state or, perhaps, pointing out flaws in the insurance system re marital status. Fair point. Nice way of f*cking up Bob and Hannah’s big day, though.

    If an athlete really wants to protest, seems to me they can refuse their spot on the team and call for a press conference.

    1. Or refuse the medal. That would really show they’re serious about the protesting impacting them, not their opponents.

    2. If an athlete really wants to protest, seems to me they can refuse their spot on the team and call for a press conference.

      Only then they lose the global audience. I think that I think (and I’m still thinking on it) that IOC is fine to ban it, and should an athlete choose to go ahead anyone they should be let to do it, and face whatever consequence (pulling medal, etc) IOC determines is fair. That should discourage frivolous protestation and still provide a global stage for more serious protestation.

  8. I think individual athletes should have the freedom of conscience to protest as they see fit (so long it does not interfere in the Games being conducted or with the performance or treatment of other athletes).

    I don’t think nations should play politics with the Olympic Games (with the narrow exception of when another nation’s policies have a direct impact on the Games themselves — as, for example, when South Africa was barred from the Olympics because, under its policy of apartheid, it prohibited non-white athletes from competing to make its national team).

    1. I am reminded of an Olympics that we (our country) boycotted back around 1980. The events were to be in Russia and they had invaded Afghanistan. Imagine that. Not so many years later we invaded Afghanistan and then did more by invading Iraq. 20 years later we are still attempting to get out of Afghanistan. Where do I sign up to boycott everything?

  9. In the unfortunate event that political protests get out of hand at the Olympics (which theoretically could be engaged in by athletes from any country for any cause) then there is one simple solution: end the flag raising ceremony. It would be a shame to see it go. As I recall (I may be wrong here), the modern Olympics was not conceived as a competition between nations, but rather one just between the best athletes in the world.

    1. I’d be quite happy to see the flag raising ceremony go. Hand out medals and flowers, and that’s it. Off you go.

  10. I find it offensive and hypocritical to protest your own country at the Olympic Games. The entire point of the Olympics is to represent your nation to the world. I’m fine with it for our own events such as the NF, but if you want the privilege of representing your nation to the world, then you have to show support for your nation on the world stage. Not to mention that these athletes have made it to the Olympic stage due to their hard work (or sometimes financial privilege) and the opportunity to do so, which runs counter to what they’re protesting.

    One can be a patriot and also work towards fixing things that are broken – those are not mutually exclusive.

    1. With you.

      They are probably not doing it to represent their nation.

      They are likely doing it to gain attention and pay and endorsement deals.

  11. Is this a new thing? I thought the two US athletes who gave Black Power salutes from the podium in ’68 were expelled from the Games by the IOC?

    1. And the Australian Peter Norman, who was the third man on the podium, supported their protest for religious reasons and had his career ended.

  12. Honor the individual athletes, not the nation states. Make this recognition of the hard work and skills of the athletes, not the sword shaking and flag waving racist and war mongering nation states.

  13. I’d say that political protests should be banned inside the stadia and event venues, but let the athletes sound off on Twitter if they wish to.

    1. …hell yes!… so many avenues available to them to make whatever statement they want… but no, ‘look at me! look at me! look at me!…’

  14. I want to zag a bit. I don’t have an issue with an athlete protesting while playing in our country. While it sometimes makes me cringe a bit to see folks turn their backs on the flag, free speech always trumps a momentary cringe. But I have a huge problem with people who are representing our country going abroad and spitting on the symbols of the country they chose to represent. It feels arrogant in the extreme to take a country’s money to represent its people and then show the world that you despise the people and country you are representing.

  15. I agree with Suzi above. I remember thinking way back then, when people yelled “Love it or Leave it” that I didn’t want to leave, I just wanted to improve something I loved. On the other hand, showing disrespect on the world stage for the the country you are representing says a lot about your own character. Perhaps an agreement before going to the Olympics that you understand you are willingly representing the USA and not your own large ego.

    1. Kindred instincts. I lived in Greece as a child, my dad was in the army, acting as a liaison to the Greek military. I remember being taught as a seven year old that I was an ambassador for my country and must always behave in a way not to shame my dad or that country. It was a powerful message, remembered over 60 years later.

    2. Perhaps characterizing a protest as for “your own large ego” is not accurate. I think the protests result from personal values and ideals. It is not easy to make such a protest. The athletes will be demonized. For many whatever fame comes from winning is transient and the infamy from protesting can result in long lasting problems. I am not sure that courage comes from ego.

      1. I think that a person experiencing years of continual physical training and focus, resulting in increasing success and fame, may unconsciously develop the view that, “I can do anything, if I try”. How can they really appreciate what their life will be like when the the training, focus, and fame are finished, let alone that something that a protest like this done in the rush of success, in good faith, could not result in success, and even result in negative consequences far into the future. Courage, instead, is doing something you really do realize will have dire consequences.

  16. Well, it’s a travesty that the institutional racism Gwen faced prevented her from pursuing her dream of representing that racist entity at the Olympics.
    Oh wait…

    (Yes, I am being deliberately simplistic. I am all for protest. But I would never detract from another’s moment. And I am slightly suspicious that THESE days, while the protest may be justified, it also smacks of virtue signalling (of sorts).
    Here’s an idea – why not protest at the START of your hammer throw or 100m final…)

    I feel that action against inequity etc needs to be taken, but deep inside me, these gestures seem to just futile, but like window dressing…whereas the 1986 and 1972 black protests felt real and honest and powerful.

    Also, only the winners protest. I just can’t put my finger on it…

    Still, I am glad that the bronze medalist of the hammer throw is there to speak up for me. I couldn’t go on, otherwise.

    (Again, it’s cold here, lockdown, no coffee yet…I’m a bit churlish today…)

  17. The way that woke culture seems to work, if such protests were allowed, US athletes that don’t actually hate America would likely be pressured into such protests, lest they face shunning from team members, and possible campaigns to cancel their future plans for endorsements of pro teams. Maybe even the ones who plan to go on to university might face a a relentless campaign to prevent their attending.

    Additionally, when such protests are allowed or encouraged, they will grow more elaborate and distracting.

    An addition, the world can watch while the athletes that represent us and our country can stand on the podium and give little performances showing how much they despise their own country.

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