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Monday, September 27, 2021

Tokyo 2020: Raven Saunders’ gesture renews controversy over podium protests

Raven Saunders delivered the first political demonstration on the podium at the Tokyo Olympics when she crossed her arms in the shape of an “X” after receiving her silver medal in women's shot put.

By: New York Times |
August 2, 2021 12:18:45 pm
Raven Saunders of the United States gestures after winning the silver in women's shot put. (Reuters)

by Matthew Futterman, Talya Minsberg and David W. Chen

In the morning, Raven Saunders of the United States captured the silver medal in the shot put.

At night, Saunders delivered the first political demonstration on the podium at the Tokyo Olympics when she raised her arms and crossed them in the shape of an “X” after receiving her medal, setting the stage for a standoff between the International Olympic Committee and U.S. Olympic leaders.

The organizations have conflicting rules and views regarding the exercise of free speech during the Olympics.

Asked after the medal ceremony as she walked toward a phalanx of television cameras about the meaning of the gesture, Saunders said it was “for oppressed people.”

Minutes later, an American fencer, Race Imboden, went to the podium at a different venue after the United States took the bronze medal in foil. He had a circled “X” written on his hand. In 2019, Imboden knelt during the playing of the national anthem at the Pan American Games.

Photos taken during Sunday’s bronze medal match show that Imboden did not have the symbol on his hand during the competition. It was unclear what the meaning of the mark was, but U.S. Olympics officials said they had begun to hear in recent days that athletes were planning protests.

The IOC and its counterparts for the United States quickly said the other party would be handling the matter.

From the IOC’s perspective, Saunders’ gesture looked to be a clear violation of the organization’s prohibition on political demonstrations on the podium or during competitions, even though the organization in recent months has relaxed its rules against demonstration in other areas the Olympic committee controls.

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee has a different set of rules and has said it will no longer punish athletes who exercise their free speech rights, so long as they are not expressing hate.

Saunders could face a wide range of punishments, everything from a reprimand to having her medals stripped and being barred from future competitions. But it is not clear what will happen because the IOC has declined to detail penalties for violations.

Minutes after Saunders’ demonstration, Mark Adams, chief spokesperson for the IOC, said the initial decision rests with the athlete’s national Olympic committee because under the process, those organizations are responsible for policing athlete behavior.

Jon Mason, a spokesperson for the U.S. Olympic Committee, initially said Sunday night that the organization was reviewing the gestures but then said that the IOC would be taking the lead. He said U.S. officials had been informed that the IOC would be addressing the matter at its next daily news briefing, on Monday morning.

The wide gap between the IOC leaders and their U.S. counterparts on the issue became public in June 2020, when Casey Wasserman, the leader of the organizing committee for the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, urged the IOC president, Thomas Bach, to end the organization’s ban on political demonstrations at the Games.

Then in December, U.S. Olympic officials announced that they would not punish American athletes who speak out during the Games, so long as they don’t express hatred toward or attack any person or group.

The United States has taken the position that it won’t punish or reprimand athletes who make political statements, regardless of what punishment the IOC decides to mete out. National Olympic committees and international sports federations can suspend athletes from competition, and as signatories to the Olympic Charter, they theoretically have to carry out a punishment demanded by the IOC.

“They have the authority and the jurisdiction and a unique set of sanctions,” Sarah Hirshland, chief executive of the USOPC, said last week of international Olympic leaders. “We sit in a different seat.”

Bach ordered the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission to study the issue. The commission conducted a survey that said two-thirds of athletes who responded favored keeping the field of competition and the podium free of demonstrations. The IOC adjusted its rules slightly in the spring but in June said athletes would be allowed to exercise free speech rights anywhere except during competitions and awards ceremonies.

Raven Saunders of the United States celebrates after winning a silver medal in the women’s shot put at the Tokyo Olympics. (Reuters)

Saunders, 25, has worked as an advocate for racial justice and mental health.

She earned the silver medal by putting the shot 64 feet, 11 1/4 inches. China’s Lijiao Gong won the gold medal with a put of 67 feet, 6 1/4 inches. New Zealand’s Valerie Adams won bronze.

Saunders, who goes by the nickname the Hulk, has been open about her struggle with depression in an effort to destigmatize conversations around mental health.

She took some time away from the sport in 2018 after attempting to take her own life. At the beginning of 2020, she signaled her return by tweeting, “If not for sending a text to an old therapist I would not be here.”

She became a breakout star during the U.S. Olympic trials in June, wearing bold masks during competition.

In Tokyo, she stared down competitors and reveled in the joy of the Games, moving her hips in celebration.

“If you are BLACK, LGBTQIA+, Or mentally Struggling. This one is for you,” she posted on Instagram, shortly after capturing the silver.

Imboden, a left-handed foilist, has been a towering figure in his sport — a three-time Olympian, former world No. 1 and first American man to win the overall World Cup title.

But for all his accomplishments on the piste, Imboden, 28, may be best known for being one of two U.S. athletes, along with Gwen Berry, a hammer thrower, to protest during the 2019 Pan American Games.

Imboden said he wanted to highlight issues such as “racism, gun control, mistreatment of immigrants, and a president who spreads hate.”

The Pan American Games protest outraged the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which slapped Imboden and Berry with 12 months of probation each and warned that future protests would result in more severe penalties.

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