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'Cowardice': Olympics Committee Slammed for New Guidelines Barring Athletes From Kneeling, Raising Fists

"God how I despise these Olympic politician opportunists."

American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists and give the Black Power Salute at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.

American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists and give the Black Power Salute at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. The move was a symbolic protest against racism in the United States. Smith, the gold medal winner, and Carlos, the bronze medal winner, were subsequently suspended from their team for their actions. (Photo: Bettman via Getty)

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.

The IOC announced the guidelines for Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter Thursday. Among the specific actions (pdf) now banned are:

  • 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.

"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."

She continued:

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.

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."

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