U.S. Olympic leaders open to challenging IOC rule banning protests

As athletes across the country commit to protesting systemic racism and police brutality in wake of the killing of George Floyd in police custody, American Olympians want that chance as well. And the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee may be ready to fight for them to have that chance.

USOPC could challenge protest rule

Following a USOPC statement that supported the fight for equality but lacked any reference to the longstanding International Olympic Committee rule banning any protest, USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland announced that the federation would be forming an athletes’ working group to “challenge the rules and systems in our own organization that create barriers to progress.” The first order of business? Consider challenging the IOC’s protest ban.

The athletes’ working group is a good first step, but just like Hirshland’s first statement, that was also met with criticism. According to the Associated Press, Hirshland decided to form the athletes’ working group without consulting with the USOPC’s Athletes’ Advisory Council. The AAC exists to give athletes a larger voice in USOPC decision making, which has long been a struggle.

Despite the irony of the situation, the AAC’s first vice chair, Cody Mattern, said the group is committed to solving the problems at hand.

“While there was a breakdown in communication last week with the USOPC, we must all focus on the larger task at hand: addressing life-threatening racial injustice,” Mattern told the Associated Press.

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Council is considering challenging the IOC's longstanding rule against protesting on the medal stand. (Xinhua/Du Xiaoyi via Getty Images)
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Council is considering challenging the IOC's longstanding rule against protesting on the medal stand. (Xinhua/Du Xiaoyi via Getty Images)

Could the IOC change its mind on protests?

Until recently, the IOC has been firmly entrenched in its anti-protest stance. The IOC’s Athletes’ Commission released further guidelines in January to clarify Rule 50, which bans all protests, leaving no wiggle room for athletes to protest in any way without punishment.

Change could be in the wind, though. IOC president Thomas Bach said last week that the federation would work with the Athletes’ Commission to relax the protest rules. But since that commission is the one that released guidelines that reinforced Rule 50, a challenge from the USOPC — which brings more money and athletes to the IOC than any other body — could actually result in change.

With the protests against police brutality and systemic racism spreading across the world and even to the soccer fields in England and Germany, the IOC’s stance against the politicization of sports seems beyond quaint. Even the USOPC has been reconsidering its own history. John Carlos and Tommie Smith, the two most famous Olympic protesters in history, were recently inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame despite being suspended by the U.S. track team and tossed out of the Games in 1968 following their stirring Black Power salute on the medal stand.

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