Updated: July 23, 2021 8:37:54 am
Gwen Berry isn’t coming to Tokyo with a mere medal on her mind. The American hammer thrower is also weighing all her options to stage a protest on the podium, if she was to step on it.
She’s done it before. Once, in 2019, Berry raised her fist when the US national anthem started playing as a form of protest against social injustice in her country. And just last month, when The Star-Spangled Banner blared out from the speakers during the US selection trials, she turned her back to the American flag.
“When I get there (Tokyo) I will figure something out,” Berry, who confronted the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach through a New York Times video op-ed, recently said.
Bach and the IOC will be watching. And they’ve been warning – on July 16, Bach, in an interview with The Financial Times, advised athletes to avoid ‘divisive’ statements at the Games. It’s unlikely, however, that the athletes would be listening.
These fist-raising, knee-taking, glass ceiling-breaking athlete activists aren’t content simply by pushing the boundaries of human endeavour. For them, the biggest sporting platform is also a platform to leverage their influence to bring social and political change, even if that means inviting the wrath of the Olympic bosses, who might squirm in their seats and let out a disapproving sigh each time that happens.
Sign of the times
“When the world is moving one way, it’s very difficult for sport to stand still, or move in the other direction,” sports scientist Ross Tucker tells The Indian Express. “So, it is inevitable that the woke culture that has been so prevalent for the last few years will impact on sport.”
There’s ample evidence of Tokyo being a ‘woke Olympics’ already. The IOC, which likes to propagate the idea of political neutrality, has already been forced to relax its rules regarding demonstrations at the Games; the organisers then had to reverse their ‘discriminatory’ rule which did not allow nursing mothers to bring their infants with them to Tokyo; for the first time, a transgender athlete will compete in the Olympics; and one of Japan’s most powerful men – a former Prime Minister, no less – had to step down as the organising committee chief for saying that ‘women talk too much’, he was replaced by a woman who has competed at several Olympic Games.
“These will be very woke Olympics, I think so,” American sprinter Rai Benjamin, who recently ran the third-fastest 400m hurdles race in history, tells this paper. “I can’t say I am going to be one of those people that will be demonstrating, but I stand in support of the other athletes. It’s important right now (that athletes speak up), especially with what happened after England lost their final to Italy (in the European football championship).”
Until the Rio Games five years ago, an IOC rule – Rule 50 – prohibited any kind of demonstration or political/ religious statements at Olympic sites. But weeks after those Games concluded, American football player Colin Kaepernick took a knee before a match to protest social injustice. Kaepernick was ostracised but the trend he set spread like wildfire. Taking a knee before a game in many events is now as common as posing for a pre-match group photo.
The IOC, after initially insisting that the Tokyo Games will remain apolitical, had to relent. They reluctantly announced new rules, which will allow more freedom of expression even though demonstrations will still be prohibited on the medals podium and the field of play. But The Guardian reported that all Tokyo 2020 social media teams have been banned from posting such images.
The players, though, couldn’t care less. On Wednesday, Great Britain’s women’s football team took a knee before their kick-off against Chile, proving that the focus this time will not just be on the athletic performances but also on what happens before and after matches.
This tug of war between the athletes and officials will be a constant theme in the background. Tucker calls it the “Streisand effect”, where an attempt to suppress information only makes it more widespread.
“You can understand, in a commercial world with sponsor pressure and the IOC’s desire to avoid alienating anyone, why they are very nervous about athletes taking on big significant political issues,” Tucker says. “Just look at how irate and upset people have become at political protests in sport, and you realise that the IOC sees its ‘customers’ turning against the sport. So I have some sympathy for them, but I also can’t see how anyone can silence the views of athletes.”
Especially in an era when athletes can directly reach out to millions of followers on issues ranging from Black Lives Matters to motherhood to gender rights. American sociologist and civil rights activist Harry Edwards, the architect of Olympic Project for Human Rights which led to the Black Power Salute at the 1968 Games, says social media has made athletes ‘more informed and in definitional control of their own images, actions, and careers than at any other time in history.’
“Nobody is going to sponsor or watch IOC leaders participate in a single track and field or gymnastic event, or play basketball, etc,” Edwards told The Indian Express in a statement. “It is the athletes who are and who embody the substance, spirit, and value of the Olympic Games. And ultimately the athletes must have a greater and more authoritative hand in the wielding of power and authority over the Olympic institution.”
Difference of opinion
Indeed, this could all lead to conflicting ideals, as seen during the Euros when on occasions one team took the knee while the other did not. It was also a sign of the times that the doping ban on American sprint sensation Sha’Carri Richardson for smoking pot before her competition spun into an issue of race and triggered a debate over the rights and wrongs of marijuana use.
Or even the debate over the participation of Laurel Hubbard, the New Zealand weightlifter who is set to become the first transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics. “It is woke to be inclusive and respect gender, but how does sport accommodate this, given that it’s biology, not gender that matters?” Tucker says.
He also argues that a lot of these conversations are ‘driven by fear.’ “The IOC being fearful of alienating the fan base and sponsors, the athletes fearful of recrimination if they express those views,” he says.
At least the likes of Berry aren’t fearful. Yet. Even when her sponsors backed out when she first protested in 2019. And even when, last month, she was labelled by many in her country as ‘anti-national’. When the anthem was played, she turned her back to the flag and draped a t-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘athlete activist’.
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