On Saturday, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s Athletes’ Advisory Council wrote a letter to the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee requesting they remove a rule from their charter that bans protesting at the Olympic Games.
Prior to the Tokyo Olympics being postponed to 2021, the IOC released a statement in January to clarify the rule in question from the Olympic Charter. Rule 50 was fabricated by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics.
The document released by the IOC defines protests as “displaying any sort of political messaging” or “gestures of a political nature.” It stated protests are prohibited at any and all Olympic venues.
Specific forms of protest that were mentioned include the use of signs, armbands, hand gestures, and kneeling. It appears many of these specifications were put in place after Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ acts of protest on the podium in 1968, and of course, athletes across several leagues were seen kneeling during the national anthem.
What Athletes Want the IOC and IPC to Know
The letter signed by several Olympic and Paralympic athletes calls for the IOC and IPC to encourage athletes to express their beliefs rather than punish them. The athletes emphasized these expressions of beliefs exemplifies the traits of an Olympian and the goals of Olympism.
Some of the Athletes’ Advisory Council group members and athletes that participated in creating the letter included table tennis player Han Xiao, fencer Cody Mattern, rower Nick LaCava, and para-cycler Sam Kavanagh among others.
The group of athletes wants executives to begin having these difficult conversations with athletes and be open-minded to praising athletes for their courage rather than tearing them down. The letter specifically addresses showing support towards issues regarding human rights and the importance of advocating for the cause rather than remaining silent.
Smith and Carlos, two Olympians punished for their acts of protest in the 1968 Olympic Games, were not inducted into the USOPC Hall of Fame until 2019. This was over 50 years after they were ejected from the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico for protesting on the medal podium.
This was a shock to many as this was not in line with the USOPC’s rejection of athlete protests. Regardless of this step in the right direction, the current rules in the Olympic Charter would not support athletes to participate in any kind of protest in Tokyo without facing consequences.
The letter comments on the fact that, considering Smith and Carlos have now been “forgiven” and praised for their actions, they see no reason why athletes cannot express their beliefs in the same way. They do not feel it is justified to prohibit current Olympians from “following in their footsteps.”
The IOC released a statement on June 10 that emphasized the IOC’s new focus on exploring different ways for athletes to express their support or honor their beliefs.
The AAC group also held a conference call with other members of the Athletes’ Commission to discuss their thoughts on the standing rule. They feel confident that although this is just the beginning, great steps will be taken to allow athletes to use their platforms and enact social change.
The letter also called for the IOC and POC to create a new policy that protects athletes who use their right to freedom of expression. Ultimately, although change cannot happen overnight – the first few steps are being taken.