USOPC says kneeling, other protests permitted at Olympic trials

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LIMA, PERU - AUGUST 09: Gold medalist Race Imboden of United States takes a knee during the National Anthem Ceremony in the podium of Fencing Men's Foil Team Gold Medal Match Match on Day 14 of Lima 2019 Pan American Games at Fencing Pavilion of Lima Convention Center on August 09, 2019 in Lima, Peru. (Photo by Leonardo Fernandez/Getty Images)
United States fencer Race Imboden takes a knee during the medal ceremony at the 2019 Pan American Games. (Photo by Leonardo Fernandez/Getty Images)

The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee will allow athletes to demonstrate in support of racial and social justice at upcoming Olympic trials.

The USOPC outlined new protest rules in a detailed nine-page document distributed to athletes and the Olympic community on Tuesday.

Any demonstration "that is aimed at (1) advancing racial and social justice; or (2) promoting the human dignity of individuals or groups that have historically been underrepresented, minoritized, or marginalized in their respective societal context;" will be permitted, the document states.

Among the given examples of permissible demonstrations are:

  • "Wearing a hat or face mask with phrases such as 'Black Lives Matter' or 'Trans Lives Matter' or words such 'equality' or 'justice.'"

  • "Holding up one’s fist at the start line or on the podium."

  • "Kneeling on the podium or at the start line during the national anthem."

The rules also spell out certain "impermissible" actions, including any that "advocates specifically against other people" or "physically impedes" competition or a medal ceremony.

"Impermissible Elements include, for example, the use of slurs, discriminatory remarks or gestures that denigrate, ridicule, or mock a person or persons based upon their race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, economic status, nationality, or country of origin," the document states.

The process behind the USOPC's progressive stance

The rules were developed in consultation with the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice, a group of dozens of athletes, Olympic alumni, administrators and outside experts established in August 2020.

In a letter to athletes on Tuesday, USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland wrote that the council "made it clear there is a deep desire for Team USA athletes to speak on these issues, and to lead as a positive force in our community."

In December, at the recommendation of the council, the USOPC urged the International Olympic Committee to “end the prohibition of peaceful demonstrations” at the Olympic Games themselves. The IOC's controversial Rule 50 restricts athlete demonstrations. Guidelines issued last year specifically prohibited kneeling and raised fists.

Under growing pressure from athletes, the IOC has said it is undergoing a formal review of the rule. But sources in the Olympic world are skeptical the review will lead to any change.

The USOPC, in December, said it wouldn't punish athletes for "respectfully demonstrating in support of racial and social justice" at the Games. But its statement did not, and cannot, prevent the IOC from taking action if a U.S. athlete were to take a knee or raise a fist in Tokyo this summer.

"Team USA therefore will be responsible for adherence to a different set of rules to govern demonstrations at the Games, and USOPC guidance for the Games will be published separately," the USOPC acknowledges in the new document.

Defining permissible and impermissible protest

Its new rules for Olympic trials, though, could be seen as a template for any sporting organization hoping to distinguish between peaceful protest and offensive or political demonstration.

Among the given examples of impermissible actions are:

  • Wearing a hat or face mask with a hate symbol or hate speech on it.

  • Using language expressing hatred or Discriminatory Remarks towards a historically minoritized or marginalized group, including but not limited to Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), LGBTQ+ individuals, and individuals with disabilities.

  • Making hand gestures affiliated with hate groups, like white supremacist or terrorist signs.

  • Violent protests or acts that damage property at the trials venue or physically threaten or harm other people.

  • Actions/behaviors physically impeding athletes’ right to compete, such as blocking lanes by laying on a track or otherwise interfering with a competition.

  • Display of historically discriminatory signs or flags, such as the Confederate flag.

  • Defacing, distorting, or causing physical harm to a national flag.

"The USOPC may impose a proportionate consequence" for any impermissible action, the rules state. Potential consequences, "based on the severity of the violation," include warnings, denials of future funding, or even expulsion from Olympic trials."

The rules define "hate speech" as "any kind of communication in speech, writing or behavior that attacks or uses pejorative language or discriminatory remarks with reference to a person or a group on the basis of their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ability, or other identity factor."

They define "racial justice" as "intentional actions for the equitable treatment of racially minoritized individuals and groups with the goal of eliminating racial inequities, deconstructing systemic racism, and counteracting racist narratives that target racially minoritized individuals, including Black, Indigenous, and People of Color."

The document also clarifies that athletes "may of course use their voice and expressions in other forums, like the press, social media, and areas outside of the trials venues."

And it assures them that any permissible demonstration "will not impact team selection, team participation, or results."

Most U.S. trials for the Tokyo Olympics will take place over the next three months. The Games begin July 23.

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