LANE ONE: British sprinter Gemili wants to protest at the Tokyo Games, since no one cares about him any other time

British sprint star Adam Gemili

Sad, so sad, but so true.

Adam Gemili, Britain’s powerfully built, two-time Olympic sprinter, with bests of 9.97 from 2015 and 19.97 from 2016, is a medal contender for the Tokyo Games in the 200 m and especially on the 4×100 m relay. He told Eurosport late last month:

“We get one moment every four years, and, with the world’s eyes focused on the Games, athletes will use their moment to protest.”

Re-read that statement, slowly. Now consider the meaning by inverting it. Translation:

“No one cares about me or my sport for three years and 50 weeks, but only at the Olympic Games, once every four years.”

Gemili understood clearly what he was saying. He doubled down on it:

“We are not in the public eye that often, so when we do get that moment, why are we not able to use our voices like other athletes do?

“We are protesting as the minority and the fact that they [the IOC] are trying to limit that goes against everything the Olympics says it stands for. I get sport has to be separate from politics. But this is more than politics; this is humanitarian and about decency – this is not political at all. It is so disappointing that if that moment comes [making the podium], I am not allowed to really have a voice, to do anything.”

Gemili, 27, has obviously been spending his time in training and hasn’t made a close study of the month-long poll taken by the IOC Athletes’ Commission, made public on 21 April. In the survey, the following question was asked of all respondents:

“In Olympic venues, during the Olympic Games, how appropriate do you think it is for athletes to have an opportunity to demonstrate or to express their individual views on political issues and other topics, in the following places?”

Respondents responded on a scale from 1 to 5, “where 1 means ‘Not at all appropriate” and 5 means ‘Very appropriate’.” The results (remaining results short of 100% were “don’t know”):

Expression in media: 42% in favor( 4-5); 17% not sure (3); 37% against (1-2)

Expression in interviews: 38% in favor (4-5); 17% not sure (3); 40% against (1-2)

Expression at Olympic Village: 28% in favor (4-5); 17% not sure (3); 49% against (1-2)

Expression on the field of play: 14% in favor (4-5); 11% not sure (3); 71% against (1-2)

Expression at Opening Ceremony: 14% in favor (4-5); 11% not sure (3); 69% against (1-2)

Expression on awards podium: 16% in favor (4-5), 12% not sure (3); 67% against (1-2)

The story noted:

“The IOC said that the decision was made after surveying 3,547 athletes from 185 countries; the results of said survey found that 67% supported a ban on podium protests. However, Gemili points out that 30% is a substantial number, adding that the blanket ban goes against Olympic values.

“‘[The survey results] mean that 30% are in favour of protest and having that freedom of speech is pretty much what the Olympics stands for. Everyone is trying to focus on training as it is an Olympic year and the Games provides an opportunity to affect change with the whole world watching. And [the IOC] are saying you can’t do anything!’”

Sorry, Adam, it’s 16% in favor of podium protests, not 30%. And among the 135 British athletes who responded, 64% were against podium protests, 69% were against protests at the Opening Ceremony and 70% against protests on the field of play.

But the real tragedy of his comments is the invisibility of his sport – track & field – and almost all of the other sports on the Olympic program. Football’s visibility and impact are enormous, and basketball – especially the NBA in the U.S. – is not far behind, thanks to vibrant leagues in multiple countries, competing on a regular schedule, with matches televised worldwide.

Gemili’s own International Federation, World Athletics, is well aware of this. It has just recently closed an international polling program of its own across six weeks, which by the halfway mark had attracted 10,000 respondents from 141 countries – more than two and a half times the IOC Athlete survey – to its “Global Conversation” project. The early findings were hardly a surprise:

“Better quality and more facilities, greater coverage of athletics in the media and on television and more athletics in schools are emerging as key drivers of growing athletics across the world. That’s according to early findings in the Global Conversation , the survey currently being conducted by World Athletics that will shape the future direction of the sport for the next decade.”

Translation: give us more access to the sport (1) at close-by locations (such as schools) and (2) in our daily media consumption. The final results are being tallied now and a draft action plan is due by mid-year, to be formally approved for action in November. There is a lot of work to do.

By the way, these early results are hardly an endorsement of the all-powerful cure that social media was promised to be. Gemili complains “We get one moment every four years,” but check out his follower numbers:

● Adam Gemili on Facebook: 59,862
● Adam Gemili on Instagram: 54,458
● Adam Gemili on Twitter: 105,308

Remember he said, “We are not in the public eye that often.” Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are not the solution, but are part of the effort. Has he maximized his impact with his followers, or are they too casual to really care? Many marketers are asking the same question, as is World Athletics, with two million combined followers on its platforms, but according to the early replies, apparently not making much of a dent.

Gemili’s incomplete attention to what the IOC Athletes’ Commission did and its recommendations mirrors what he views as insufficient interest in social justice in society. Aren’t they, in fact, the same thing?

If he gets onto the medal stand in Tokyo, Gemili will have his opportunity to make his statement, and by then the IOC’s Legal Affairs Commission will have determined what sanctions – if any – will be imposed. Depending on the number of protests in Tokyo – and Gemili said, “athletes will protest – I expect a lot of the older athletes to protest but I hope a lot of the younger ones who are passionate do too” – it will be a major story, or perhaps nothing more than a note.

Then the Games will be over and Gemili and 95% of the athletes who competed in Tokyo will go back to anonymity, this time for three years until the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad in 2024. Good night, then. Sleep well. See you in Paris.

Or will things change?

Rich Perelman
Editor

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