The International Olympic Committee drew sharp criticism from rights advocates Thursday after the organization issued revised guidelines banning athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Games from staging protests at the event including kneeling during their national anthem or raising their fists into the air.
"So the IOC is doubling down on the disgraceful treatment of athletes in 1968?" asked Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Ifill was referring to the iconic moment at the Mexico City Olympics when black Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, as they were awarded their gold and bronze medals, respectively, wore black gloves, took off their shoes, and held their fists high to protest poverty and racism. The IOC responded by expelling Smith and Carlos.
- Displaying any political messaging, including signs or armbands
- Gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling
- Refusal to follow the Ceremonies protocol.
"When an individual makes their grievances, however legitimate, more important than the feelings of their competitors and the competition itself, the unity and harmony as well as the celebration of sport and human accomplishment are diminished," the guidelines read. The new rules still allow athletes to express their views on social media and in interviews and at press conferences, the new document states.
Failure to abide by the guidelines will result in the athlete's action being evaluated by their "respective National Olympic Committee, International Federation, and the IOC, and disciplinary action will be taken on a case-by-case basis as necessary."
The update comes less than five months after the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) reprimanded U.S. athletes Race Imboden and Gwen Berry for their act of protest at the medal podium. Imboden kneeled to protest "the multiple shortcomings of the country I hold so dear to my heart" including "a president who spreads hate," and Berry protested social injustice in America.
Tennis legend Martina Navratilova was in the chorus of opposition to the IOC's new guidelines, tweeting, "God how I despise these Olympic politician opportunists. I wouldn't last one day on one of these committees..."
Critics pointed to the fact that while the new document asserts that the podium and playing field must be a politics-free zone, the IOC itself is not politically neutral.
That ol’ meddlesome logic again. https://t.co/mGh1Hyhc89— Jeffrey Wright (@jfreewright) January 10, 2020
Also, when Mr. Hitler is present at the stadium, non-Nazi runners are not to upset him with excessive speed. https://t.co/rCyQnbywcj— Jeffrey Wright (@jfreewright) January 10, 2020
#sportslaw IOC's always been political: Oliver Hilmes' brilliant book on 1936 shows this; it was a pawn in Cold War; it sought Permanent Obs status at UN etc. Indeed, sport is an effective as soft power but let's be clear, IOC is not politically neutral https://t.co/h00xwN1PYH— Melbourne Sports Law (@sportslawMELB) January 10, 2020
“This is why it is important, on both a personal and global level, that we keep the venues, the Olympic Village and the podium neutral and free from any form of political, religious or ethnic demonstrations.”— Francis Awaritefe (@FrancisAwartefe) January 9, 2020
This very statement, is itself a political act of cowardice. https://t.co/yapgVYJbuJ
neutrality, like silence, is a position in and of itself because it allows wrongdoing to continue unchallenged. sport is as entangled in politics and culture as everything else in the world– pretending otherwise is as dangerous as it is cowardly. https://t.co/CoHHJXXyIa— Samantha Lewis (@battledinosaur) January 10, 2020
"The truth is, it's not the mixing of politics and sports that [IOC president Thomas] Bach and the IOC don't like," Nancy Armour opined Thursday at USA Today. "It's the mixing of politics they don't like with sports."
It's just fine for Bach to lobby for the issues he finds important. Or to foster good relationships with world leaders who might someday bankrupt their economies in exchange for sparkling venues, five-star hotels, and Olympic traffic lanes that allow IOC members to avoid the general populace on the roads and in the airports.
But God forbid athletes should stay silent about racism, homophobia, inequality, or murderous regimes. You know, issues that have a direct effect on their lives.
That the types of protest now barred appear to take specific aim at black athletes wasn't lost on other critics either.
The decision to ban protests (which is common beyond the Olympics) reflects the whiteness of all major institutions. Thus proving the point that indeed nothing is neutral. What a privilege to not need to protest for your liberation. This is a racist policy. https://t.co/1jFXwEnzGr— Kike Ojo-Thompson (@mskikeojo) January 10, 2020
Advocacy group People for the American Way rejected the new guidelines in a Twitter thread Friday that drew attention to an op-ed published at HuffPost in 2017 by Diallo Brooks, the group's director of outreach and public engagement.
"The right to raise our voices, make a speech, march in a rally, or take a knee in protest—whether in front of a government building or a football field—is at the heart of what it means to live in a free country," wrote Brooks.
"Young men of color who play sports are more than just entertainers, and they should not be penalized for speaking out peacefully against injustice," he wrote. "They must be allowed to have a voice. And when their voices are threatened, we have to raise our own and stand with them."