The International Olympic Committee Bans Political Statements at the Games – Again, the IOC is on the Wrong Side of History

During the 2016 season, one-time professional quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, sparked a national argument by ‘taking a knee’ during the ritual playing of the national anthem before every National Football League game. Kaepernick’s symbolic, unspoken protest was a way for him to create awareness of various social issues surrounding the continued subjugation in this country of black people and other people of color.  After the end of the 2016 season, however, Kaepernick became a free agent, and has remained unsigned ever since, even though his body of work compares favorably to various quarterbacks who have secured positions with other NFL franchises. In all actuality, Kaepernick was ‘blackballed’ by NFL owners because of the attention he brought to the forefront regarding social injustices that still prevail and plague the United States some fifty years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

 But Kaepernick is not the only athlete, or in some cases group of athletes, who has been ‘punished’ by the predominately white-male sport hierarchy after speaking out on issues regarding race and basic civil rights. Throughout the modern history of sport, athletes such as Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the Syracuse 8, the University of Wyoming Black 14, Craig Hodges, and Serena Williams (to name only a few), have had their athletic careers negatively affected, and in some cases ended entirely, by the sport establishment when they decided to speak openly about various social injustices that disproportionally affect people of color.

Since most of the above-named athletes are now celebrated as trailblazers, being held in the highest regard, why is the International Olympic Committee still on the wrong side of history and instituting stricture rules to warn and punish athletes who use their platform to speak out on racial injustices.  Wouldn’t it seem sensible for the IOC to learn from the past, i.e. 1936 Games in Berlin, 1968 Power Salute, and ousted Israeli athletes Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett, and instead of punishing athletes, come to their support and partner with them in an effort to raise the overall social consciousness of our society? 

At a time when Roger Goodell and the predominately white male hierarchy of the NFL seem to be showing some indication that they are finally beginning to understand the issues surrounding social justice, the IOC is still hanging on to its old, racist, and archaic way of thinking.

Specifically, the IOC has now officially warned athletes not to participate in specific forms of political protest at the 2021 Summer Games in Tokyo. Forms of protest include, but are not limited to, kneeling, political hand gestures and wearing or holding signs or armbands. The IOC drafted a three page guideline to fortify Rule 50 of the International Olympic Charter,which states in part, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” “We needed clarity, and they wanted clarity on the rules,” Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe, chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission stated, “The majority of athletes feel it is very important that we respect each other as athletes.”

The guidelines specifically ban gestures like those of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Colin Kaepernick, and a number of others,[1]each of whom sought to draw attention to racial injustices that have been happening to various people of color throughout the world. In addition, not only are the athletes banned from demonstrating on the field of play, they are also barred at the Olympic Village, during medal ceremonies and during Opening and Closing Ceremonies.[2]

Now per the IOC, athletes who “protest” will face disciplinary action instead of receiving support and encouragement in creating awareness to a number of social issues and injustices that plague our society today.  Since numerous sport scholars and practitioners believe that sport serves as a conduit for advancing social change through values associated with democracy, justice, and human rights, the IOC, again, is on the wrong side of history.

[1]Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa crossed his wrists at the finish line of the men’s marathon at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro to show support for civil rights protesters in his home country. Americans Race Imboden, a fencer, and hammer-thrower Gwen Berry were placed on probation by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee in August after demonstrating on the medal stand at the Pan American Games. Imboden knelt during the national anthem, while Berry raised a fist.

[2]Note – The guidelines also apply to trainers, coaches and officials.

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