Basketballers have become the latest to join the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. When National Basketball Association (NBA) games restarted a fortnight ago, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James was among those who took part in pre-game mass demonstrations during the national anthem.
But at the Olympics, such protests aren’t allowed. According to an update to Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter in January, a hand gesture or kneeling would constitute a protest at the Games. Following petitions for a rule change, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Athletes’ Commission is talking to athletes around the world now.
What is Rule 50?
From the 1970s, the Olympic Charter made it clear that “every kind of demonstration or propaganda whether political, religious or racial is forbidden in Olympic areas”. This was prompted by the iconic protest at the Mexico Games in 1968, by 200m winner Tommie Smith and bronze medallist John Carlos, both African-Americans, who raised black-gloved fists on the podium while the national anthem was being played. They were expelled.
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Even before the 1970s, National Olympic Committees were not allowed to associate themselves with matters of a political nature. Rule 50 is a later version, which added the words “Olympic sites, venues or other areas” where protests were disallowed.
In January this year, the IOC became very specific about Rule 50. Protests and demonstrations were not permitted on the field of play, in the Olympic Village, during medal ceremonies, and during the opening, closing and other official ceremonies. Additionally, kneeling was not allowed. “Displaying any political messaging, including signs or armbands, refusal to follow ceremonies protocol and gestures of political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling,” the updated Rule 50 states is disallowed.
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Why have athletes petitioned for a change in the rule?
If the current rule stays, athletes who show support for the BLM campaign will face the risk of losing a medal or being thrown out of the Games. Athletes in Major League Baseball, National Football League (NFL), cricket, football, Formula One, National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) and at the NBA have expressed solidarity with the movement by taking a knee. Taking a knee had become a way to protest four years ago when NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality.
Who have spoken out against the new version of the rule?
John Carlos has forwarded a joint letter along with other US athletes to the IOC, calling for a new policy in consultation with athletes. Organisations calling for a relook at Rule 50 include the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport and Global Athlete, which helps sportspeople’s voices reach administrators and decision-makers.
The viewpoint of athletes and those who represent them is that the IOC should allow protests that are about social justice, human rights and racism. Reigning Olympic women’s long jump champion Tianna Bartoletta told Politico: “They say sport is a human right but oppose sport being a vehicle to fight for human rights or other pertinent global issues.”
Rob Koehler, director general of Global Athlete, told The Indian Express: “We think the IOC has been out of touch in terms of what athletes want. The IOC talks about sports as the mechanism for social change and creating a better society. Athletes are leaders, athletes are influencers and if social injustice is happening in this world, such as the Black Lives Matter, surely we should be giving them the platform to speak for change. So if athletes want to use the podium, which is never an easy decision to make, it should be embraced because there are social injustices happening.”
What has been the IOC’s reaction?
IOC president Thomas Bach, after its executive board meeting in June, said its Athletes’ Commission would hold a dialogue with athletes. “We have fully supported the initiative for the IOC Athletes’ Commission to have dialogue with athletes around the world to explore different ways for how Olympic athletes can express their support for the principles enshrined in the Olympic Charter in a dignified way,” Bach said.
Most sports bodies have been open to allowing players to take a stand against racism in the playing arena. Some have changed rules, like the NFL and NASCAR. The NFL had banned players from taking a knee during the national anthem after Kaepernick’s protest, but had a rethink in light of BLM. “We were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encouraging all to speak out and peacefully protest,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in June. NASCAR banned the Confederate Flag, a symbol of white supremacy, at all its races and also allowed peaceful protests before a race, including when the national anthem is played. FIFA has allowed footballers to take a knee; the International Cricket Council has allowed cricketers to do so.
Why are stakes high for the IOC?
The IOC has to think about the Games beyond the Summer Olympics in Tokyo and the possible fallout of allowing greater leeway to athletes to protest. Its president faces a re-election in 2021, followed by the Winter Games in Beijing in 2022. The authoritarian Chinese government will be left red-faced if, for example, an athlete decides to protest against the plight of the country’s Muslim minority in Xinjiang, or the crackdown in Hong Kong. If anti-racism protests are allowed in Tokyo, it could only mean athletes will not shy away from protesting at the Beijing Winter Olympics.
IOC president Bach is seeking re-election for an additional four-year term. Although he enjoys support, the IOC under him will tread carefully without upsetting members from conservative countries who could be in favour of retaining Rule 50 in letter and spirit.
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