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The International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced in April that after much research and deliberation they would continue upholding Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which prohibits Olympic athletes from engaging in protest while on the field of play or on the awards podium. The policy forbids any form of “demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda.” This decision came after 11 months of soul-searching led by the IOC Athletes’ Commission, including a survey of 3,547 elite athletes.
What exactly counts as a demonstration or propaganda can be defined broadly, although the examples provided by the Athletes’ Commission are very specific: “Examples of what would constitute a protest include displaying any political messaging, including signs or armbands; gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling; and refusal to follow the Ceremonies protocol.”
The Commission’s guidelines clarify that “The focus at the Olympic Games must remain on athletes’ performances, sport and the international unity and harmony that the Olympic Movement seeks to advance.” The Olympics and the philosophy of Olympism have long been upheld as an ideal of friendly, neutral competition that fosters peaceful international relations. According to the Olympic Charter, the games are competitions between individual athletes, not countries. Under Olympism, enemies can set aside their political differences and pull together in the name of sport.
Unfortunately, this ideal is just that. Athletes, like all of us, live fundamentally political lives and sports are imbued with politics. Politics determine which youth athletes can afford the equipment or fees they need to get started. Politics determine which athletes are more likely to suffer traumatic brain injuries and receive compensation or necessary medical care afterward. Politics determine how a stadium will be built and who will be displaced in the process. Politics determine who can play with dignity. Even the Olympic opening ceremonies, in which host countries produce a spectacle of nationalism, are a perfect example of how politics are front and center at the Games themselves.
The neutrality of sport is a myth that obscures the injustices that affect athletes and their communities while punishing those who dare to point out that the emperor has no clothes.
The origins and enforcement of Rule 50 itself are hardly apolitical. It’s impossible to discuss the rule without mentioning Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the Black sprinters who raised their fists at the 1968 Mexico City Games, and became an iconic symbol of protest against racial injustice in the U.S. Less well known are Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett, who expressed dissent against discriminatory coaching practices four years later at the Munich Olympics; their protest involved nonchalantly ignoring the formality of their awards ceremony while twirling their medals through the air. Both incidents spurred then-IOC president Avery Brundage, renowned racist and antisemite, to eject the athletes from the Olympic Village and, in the case of Matthews and Collett, ban them from future Games. Conveniently, Smith and Jones also happened to have been members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a group that had petitioned the IOC for several demands, including the removal of Brundage from the presidency. By 1974, the Olympic Charter included a new clause requiring that “No political meetings or demonstrations will be held in the stadium.” Updates in 1975 included the language that would become Rule 50: “Every kind of demonstration or propaganda, whether political, religious, or racial, in the Olympic areas, is forbidden.” While Smith and Carlos eventually became national heroes, all four athletes witnessed the end of their Olympic careers from atop the podium.
It may be easier to look at the times when Rule 50 has not been enforced. For example, the IOC felt no need to codify an anti-demonstration rule in 1956 when Hungary’s water polo captain Dezső Gyarmati refused to shake the hand of USSR captain Petre Mshvenieradze following the bloody Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. (Gyarmati later punched a Soviet player during the match.) And at the 1960 Olympics, athletes from Taiwan protested the opening ceremonies when the IOC required them to compete under the name of Formosa (a Western moniker for the country) rather than the Republic of China. Or consider how in 1968 — the same year that Smith and Carlos were ousted for bringing a political demonstration to the medal ceremony — Czechoslovakian gymnast Věra Čáslavská protested the USSR by turning her face away when the Soviet national anthem played at her own medal ceremony. Čáslavská was vilified and punished by her government, but she was not sanctioned by the IOC.
The IOC’s specific citations of “racial propaganda,” hand gestures (read: raised fists referencing Black Power) and kneeling (which the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick popularized as a symbol of protest against police brutality and mass incarceration) are a warning signal to athletes who want to follow in the footsteps of Smith, Carlos, Matthews, and Collett. It’s worth mentioning that there are no Black people on the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission (although Black and Indigenous representatives from Senegal, Papua New Guinea, and Guyana serve as liaisons to the commission). While the Commission’s survey does not share the racial demographics of the respondents (only nationality), research has shown that Olympic athletes from Canada, the United States, Britain, and Australia tend to be disproportionately white and wealthy.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) initially adhered to the strictures of Rule 50 but reevaluated when fencer Race Imboden and hammer thrower Gwendolyn Berry took a knee and raised a fist, respectively, at the 2019 Pan American Games. After those acts of protest, the USOPC announced that it will not sanction athletes who engage in a political demonstration at sporting events under its jurisdiction. The USOPC’s Athletes’ Advisory Council and John Carlos (who now is featured on the Olympic Museum’s website) also sent a letter calling on the IOC to make similar changes. But Rule 50 will be in place at this summer’s Games in Tokyo.
It seems the IOC is content to laud dissidents in the annals of history, without risking the potential discomfort or unpopularity of getting on the right side of it today. Instead, its priority is in protecting the Olympic brand and advertisers’ peace of mind. Contemporary athletes like Berry have paid a steep price for this, but some sponsors have stuck by their outspoken brand ambassadors, highlighting a shift in how the world understands the essential connection between sports and politics.
Despite the IOC’s tenacious appeal to color-blind neutrality, the political nature of sports — and the anti-Black undertones of the Olympics — have never been more evident. In the past few months alone, the IOC and its International Sports Federations have enforced long-standing barriers that appear to specifically target Black athletes: South African runner Caster Semenya and Namibian runners Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi have been disqualified because of their naturally elevated testosterone levels; swim caps for natural Black hair have been banned at the Tokyo Olympics; and track star Sha’Carri Richardson has been suspended over testing positive for marijuana, even though recreational use is legal in Oregon, where the Olympic track and field trials were held, and its status as a banned substance is controversial.
Reached for comment, the IOC sent Teen Vogue a statement on July 2 on the decision to expand “opportunities for athlete expression” at the Tokyo Games. Rule 50.2 specifies that athletes can “express their views” in interviews with the press, through social media channels, and on the field of play prior to the start of competition — so long as the expression is “not disruptive” and adheres to other official guidelines.
These changes are a start, but the IOC has yet to realize a fundamental truth: When athletes and their organizations speak up — whether from an Olympic stadium or a high school gymnasium — they spark conversations, and sometimes things even change. Tennis star Naomi Osaka’s refusal to speak to the media at the French Open thrust the mental health of athletes, and in particular athletes of color, into the public eye. In the past few years, youth gymnasts and cheerleaders who named their abusers exposed rampant sexual misconduct (primarily targeting young girls) within USA Gymnastics and the U.S. All Star Federation, respectively. The state of North Carolina repealed HB2, the infamous “bathroom bill,” after the NCAA boycotted the state and refused to hold championship events there (although HB2 was replaced by HB142, a compromise that still blocked anti-discrimination protections for trans people). And, of course, it’s impossible to discuss political boycotts in the world of sport without naming the IOC’s decades-long ban of Apartheid South Africa (and the 29 countries that boycotted the Olympics in 1976 when the IOC did not sanction New Zealand rugby players for touring South Africa).
The claim that sport is neutral or apolitical is itself a highly charged political stance. Ultimately, Rule 50 underlines what we already know: There is immense privilege in being able to choose when to be perceived as political or apolitical and immense power in being able to define the difference for others.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue