“The athlete doth protest too much”
Emma Vernon comments on the Tokyo 2020 Olympics ban on political demonstrations, and the impact this has on freedom of political expression
Last week, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) released a clarification on Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter. The charter has existed since the inception of the modern games and is essentially a summary of Olympic ideals. The games it says, seek to promote ‘a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity’. One of the key elements outlined, is political neutrality. Rule 50 states, ‘No kind of demonstration of political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted’. Whilst this rule is not new, it has never been given any specific clarification until last week, when the IOC released guidelines as to what Rule 50 means ahead of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo this summer.
The guidelines explain that the athletes are free to protest in accordance with local legislation, but not ‘on the field of play, in the Olympic village, or during Olympic medal, opening or closing ceremonies’, essentially anywhere that is going to make a demonstration newsworthy. Threateningly, punishments are to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. These updated guidelines force us to consider whether sanitising sport and suppressing athletes’ voices during an event as significant and widely consumed as the Olympics is fair. Is squashing political protest a violation of the ‘human dignity’ the IOC claims to promote?
It seems politics finds a way to seep into the fabric of the Olympic games, however much of a sanctified space it wishes to be.
These new guidelines arrive after two American athletes were reprimanded by the US Olympic Committee for medal podium protests at the Pan-American Games last year, but non-violent demonstrations at the Olympics is no new phenomenon. The most famous example is John Carlos’ and Tommie Smith’s Black power salute at the 1968 games. Winners of a bronze and a gold medal respectively, the two mounted the podium without shoes to protest poverty in America and wore beads to protest lynching. Most famously, as the Star-Spangled Banner played, they raised their fists in the Black power salute in acknowledgement of the suffering of Black Americans, who were still subjugated as second class citizens in a country that professed to be the world’s most accepting. Their punishments by the IOC were swift, effectively ruining the athlete’s careers. When asked whether it was worth it, the two replied there was no better stage than the Olympics to make a stand, and that all they were asking for was a chance for their children to be valued as equal citizens with equal chances. The Moscow and the LA Olympics in the 1980s were also plagued by boycotts and protests as a result of rising Cold War tensions. It seems politics finds a way to seep into the fabric of the Olympic games, however much of a sanctified space it wishes to be.
The dangers of not allowing political division to be so much as mentioned at the tournament are profound. The 1936 Berlin Olympics, which went ahead despite growing concerns for the resident German Jewish population, allowed a newly revitalised Nazi Germany to use the games as a platform to show off to a captivated world. The Olympics effectively became a vessel for an accepted fascist state, despite the inspiring win by Jesse Owens. This is what occurs when we pretend that political tensions do not exist and take an ostrich-in-the-sand attitude to injustice. The decisions as to where to hold the Olympics are also based on the economic and social promises of political leaders, and therefore the games cannot occupy a truly apolitical space.
However much the IOC wishes to deny such, the Olympics are political; suppressing the views of the athletes competing under their flag is therefore hypocritical and authoritarian. More importantly, protests at the games have given a voice to the voiceless on a scope nearly impossible to achieve anywhere else. Sport is a platform through which people with talent and determination, whatever their backgrounds, can achieve great success, epitomised by winning an Olympic medal. Why then, when they finally get there, should they be silenced? However alluring the idea of a purely apolitical tournament is, a games in which the suffering and injustices of the world outside didn’t exist, the IOC should accept this is not a reality.
I’m not sacrificing my humanity to win a medal…no-one has a right to take away what’s inside you or silence what you want to sayJohn Carlos
Protests performed by athletes are usually done in the spirit of unity, not division. John Carlos responded to the updated guidelines with the statement ‘the silencing of people is political’. He powerfully stated, ‘I’m not sacrificing my humanity to win a medal’ and professes ‘no-one has a right to take away what’s inside you or silence what you want to say’. I believe the IOC should listen to the man they stripped of his career, all for raising his fist in protest of the injustices he faced everyday outside their stadium.
cover photo via Pixabay