On Thursday, January 9, 2020, the International Olympic Committee (the “IOC”) banned athletes from protesting during the 2020 Tokyo games. The IOC released a three-page guideline that reiterates Olympic Charter Rule 50, dictating how and when athletes can protest. Protesting can come in the form of athletes displaying any political messaging, such as signs or armbands, or making political gestures, such as kneeling or raising a fist.
The IOC determined that protesting is banned while on the field of play, during the medal and other official ceremonies, and in the Olympic Village. However, athletes are not banned from expressing political opinions in meetings, on social media, and during press interviews outside of the Olympic Village. Any athlete who defies the IOC’s ban will be subject to disciplinary action, but the guidelines are vague on the exact disciplinary action which the athletes will be subject to.
The IOC stated that its purpose in banning protests is to keep focus on athlete performance and international unity and harmony. Regardless of the IOC’s purpose, athletes and commentators have criticized the IOC for restricting free speech and expression. There is a long history of athletes protesting at the Olympics. Taking a knee, raising a fist, an empty pedestal – these images all symbolize political protest through action instead of words.
In 1968, during the Mexico City Games, athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the medal ceremony to protest racial discrimination and were stripped of their awards in response. In August 2019, Fencer Race Imboden knelt, and Hammer Thrower Gwen Berry raised a fist in protest during the Pan-American Games in Peru. This type of demonstration is not unique to the Olympics. In 2016, NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick famously took a knee during the National Anthem before several NFL games.
In regard to the Olympians, the IOC responded by issuing Imboden and Berry 12-month probations prohibiting the athletes from competing in the Tokyo games. As far as Kaepernick, while the NFL has not publicly banned protesting, he remains unsigned by any NFL team.
Regardless of how athletes feel about the ban, the IOC’s President Thomas Bach defends the ban and believes the Olympics should not be used as a “platform to advance political or any other divisive ends.” Bach stated that “[The IOC’s] political neutrality is undermined whenever organizations or individuals attempt to use the Olympic Games as a stage for their own agendas, as legitimate as they may be.”
With the IOC openly taking a stand against professional athlete protests, it will be interesting to see if other professional associations follow suit.