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In all eight editions of his brilliant The Complete Book of the Olympics, famed historian David Wallechinsky ended his review of the 1968 men’s 200 meters and the iconic awards ceremony featuring Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos this way:
“John Carlos responded to criticisms that his political protest had tainted the games by pointing out that the Olympic Movement was already highly political. ‘Why do you have to wear the uniform of your country?’ he asked. ‘Why do they play national anthems? Why do we have to beat the Russians? Why do the East Germans want to beat the West Germans? Why can’t everyone wear the same colors but wear numbers to tell them apart? What happened to the Olympic ideal of man against man?’”
Political protest is now the issue of the moment, surpassing concerns about the impact of the coronavirus in the U.S. and in some other nations around the world. Even with major concerns about the staging of the Tokyo 2020 Games in front of the IOC Executive Board last week, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach (GER) opened his media teleconference by reading a 3 1/2-minute statement entitled “The International Olympic Committee Condemns Racism in the Strongest Terms.”
Following its usual procedural approach, the Executive Board asked the IOC Athletes’ Commission “to explore different ways of how Olympic athletes can express their support for the principles enshrined in the Olympic Charter, including at the time of the Olympic Games, and respecting the Olympic spirit.”
The Athletes’ Commission has already gone through all this and issued a document in January of this year concerning Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter and its ban on protests on the field of play or in official Olympic ceremonies. It essentially says that if you protest, you could be subject to sanctions, without further details.
In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd on 25 May in Minneapolis, the issue has boomeranged back on the IOC with new calls for freedom of expression and for athletes to do as their conscience guides them, anywhere and any time.
This has come not only from individual athletes and groups representing themselves as “authentic voices” of athletes, but also from significant organizations:
● The Commonwealth Games Foundation, which stages the 71-team Commonwealth Games every four years, said last week that athletes would be allowed “to take a knee in support of worldwide anti-racism movements” at the 2022 Games in England.
● The New Zealand Olympic Association issued a statement attributed to President Mike Stanley that “We support our athletes as they share their voices, and we look to ourselves for ways to further strengthen our commitment to equality.”
● The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s chief executive, Sarah Hirshland, is forming an “athlete-led group” to compose a request for the IOC Athletes’ Commission – and by extension, the IOC – to modify its Rule 50 stance.
● World Athletics President Sebastian Coe, himself a two-time Olympic gold medalist who famously saluted – sort of “arm-in-arm” – the British media from the track after winning the men’s 1,500 m in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, told The Independent, “There is nothing in World Athletics’ Integrity Cody of Conduct to prevent athletes from protesting as long as it is done in a respectful manner, considers other athletes, and does not damage our sport.”
Ah yes, but what is “respectful” and “considers other athletes”? That’s the question, and quite a serious one.
And for the IOC, as owner and guardian of the modern Olympic Games, what is the way forward?
In this context, it’s worth remembering that the IOC – members and staff – are fully aware of the interests of athletes from the “West,” especially North America, Europe and Oceania. What do those from all the other countries think about such protests?
And while American athletes such as hammer thrower Gwen Berry, who said she expects the IOC “will continue to prioritize political relationships, profits and their own existence over the rights and freedom of athletes,” there is a wide understanding among those working in the Olympic Movement that the modern Games is designed to reflect the ancient Greek model in which warring city-states declared a truce during the period of the Games, which was – at its core – a pagan religious festival.
So what does the IOC do now? Allow protests anywhere? Shut them down? What?
Carlos asked some good questions back in 1968 and these are not lost on the IOC today. For those athlete groups looking to use the Games for their own reasons, they will likely find today’s International Olympic Committee far more sophisticated than the static discipline of then-IOC President Avery Brundage (USA).
The IOC has options, lots of options. It could simply allow protests – but what kind? – or it could consider:
● Olympic medal ceremonies have changed over time. Star Olympic historian Bill Mallon (USA) noted in an e-mail that through the 1928 Games in Amsterdam (NED):
“Sometimes the medals arrived by mail, sometimes they were given out in a ceremony near the end where all medalists approached the dignitary stand – as with Jim Thorpe [in 1912]. It varied from Olympics to Olympics. The podium started at the 1930 Commonwealth Games. That was when it was first used [and added for the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles].
“Interesting also is that 1960 Roma was the first time medals were hung around the neck. Prior to that time the winners were just given the medal in a box.”
● Carlos asked why national uniforms are worn and anthems are played. The answer to the uniforms is that – except for the U.S., which gets no government funding for its Olympic programs – taxpayers send their athletes to the Games and want to be able to see them compete in their national colors. Numbers aren’t enough any more.
But the anthem question is different, as it applies only to the winners. So:
(1) What if the Olympic Hymm were played instead of the winner’s anthem? This is already done if an Olympic winner is from a country on suspension from the IOC, as was the case in 2016 for Double Trap shooting gold medalist Fehaid Al-Deehani of Kuwait, who competed as an individual, as his National Olympic Committee was not recognized at that Games. (Thanks to David Wallechinsky for a clarification on his status.)
(2) What if the IOC went a step further, and raised only a single Olympic flag for all three medal winners and played the Olympic Hymm? As the IOC and Tokyo 2020 look to “simplify the Games,” this would be a good way to do it.
(3) Further, why have the awards ceremonies at the venues at all?
The obvious reference is to the Olympic Winter Games, which has a separate Medals Plaza and hands out the medals in elaborate ceremonies – surrounded by music and other programming – daily, away from the venues. This was created to allow more people to honor the skiing medal winners, for whom the venue ceremonies would be limited to the small crowds around the finish lines.
If there is concern – and there will be – of on-podium demonstrations which might be offensive to some – “divisive” is the IOC’s term – why have any awards at the venues at all? Create a Medals Plaza for the summer Games and simply award medals on the following day.
This will be difficult for the Tokyo organizers to introduce at this late stage, but it could be done. It will also create another much-needed ticket opportunity for local fans, and might be a better venue for “showcasing” demonstrations than as interruptions of a crowded competition session at a sports venue.
All of these options and more are at the disposal of the IOC and its Athletes’ Commission as it considers what changes – if any – to make in its Rule 50 Guidelines in advance of the Tokyo 2020 Games next year.
The IOC is right to be concerned about protests in Tokyo, because what one considers a call for freedom on one side is a call to arms on another. Need we list all of the world’s hot conflicts, or forget the 1972 Palestinian murder of 11 members of the Israeli delegation? That was a “protest” too.
The Athletes’ Commission is no pushover, headed by seven-time Olympic medalist Kirsty Coventry, the current Minister of Youth, Sport, Arts and Recreation in the Cabinet of Zimbabwe. Neither is Bach, himself an Olympic gold medalist from 1976, or the members of the Executive Board, including Anita DeFrantz of the U.S., who filed suit against the U.S. government in an effort to allow American athletes to attend the 1980 Games.
Both athletes and the IOC have a lot to gain by finding the right way forward together in a time of global reflection, but both sides could also lose a lot, perhaps even more than they can imagine. Carlos asked a lot of good questions in ‘68; maybe he can help find some answers now.