(★ Friends: Wow! Happy to report 47 donations over the past few weeks toward our half-yearly server and support costs, covering about 97% of the current bill. A little more help? If you wish, please donate here. Thank you. ★)
The seeds of the iconic 1968 medal-stand protest following the men’s 200 m at the Mexico City Olympic Games started in a swimming pool in New York, and there is no clear-cut outcome to the ongoing discussion of whether such protests should be allowed on Tokyo in 2021.
The turbulent discussion over the protest prohibition of the Olympic Charter in Rule 50 has mostly been between athletes, in online meetings thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, or in conference calls or exchanges of messages.
But last Thursday (30th), three important voices came together for the weekly “Athletes Connect” program on the PanAmSports channel, offering impressive insights into the views of athletes in the Americas and the current status of the review of Rule 50. PanAm Sports marketing director Alexandra Orlando (CAN: 10-time Pan Am Games medalist in rhythmic gymnastics) moderated the 66-minute discussion with:
● John Carlos (USA), the 200 m bronze medalist in 1968;
● Aliann Pompey (GUY: four-time Olympian in Athletics at 400 m), head of the PanAm Sports Athlete Commission, and
● Kikkan Randall (USA: 2018 Olympic gold medalist in Cross Country Skiing), member of the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission
The short story is that nothing has been decided yet, but there has been lots of discussion, with more coming. A significant roundtable with 68 athletes from 38 out of the 41 countries in the Pan American region was held on 14 July and Pompey noted there was hardly unanimity:
“What we found from that conversation is that the athlete’s views fell across an entire spectrum of reactions. There were a few who thought the Rule should outright be abolished. Some felt that it should be left as it is, while some felt that there is a need for change. Of those who felt there should be some change, there were those who felt that the Rule was fine, but the way the Rule was interpreted needed to be fixed. And then there were others that felt that the Rule itself was the problem. …
“I think our starting point has to be common ground, right? Now, the guidelines allow for expression of opinion on social media, in interviews and press conferences and team meetings, but the cusp of all this is what happens to the podium. That’s where, I think, the main point of contention becomes. …
“I don’t know if anyone else was as surprised as I was but I thought – and I don’t know why – would be that a lot more people are calling for this Rule to be abolished.
“And that’s not the case. People are asking to be allowed to do certain things that fall within the values of the Olympic Games.”
Randall added what appeared to be a developing consensus about part of the solution going forward:
“I think it was really encouraging to see that the IOC Executive Board really understood the magnitude of this right away and they empowered us – the Athletes’ Commission – to go out and conduct like a true consultation with athletes across the globe to find out, you know, what needs are we not addressing, what are the concerns and how can we all come together creatively to find solutions to empower our athletes to use their amazing platforms as role models, to bring light to the issues that are important, to drive for change and to really support what the Olympics are all about. I mean, that’s excellence, respect and friendships.” (Emphasis added)
“So, in really gathering all of these viewpoints and seeing the spectrum, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to, like, grow the pie a little bit bigger and say, OK, is there a way to still protect celebrating performance on the podium, trying to keep the Olympics a little bit removed from too much politics – coming from all sides – can we find ways to amplify the platform of the athletes, in particular because the podium only allows those athletes who actually make the podium to make a stand and we want to grow it so that all athletes can have that spectrum.” (Emphasis added)
And Randall and Pompey are both well aware of the potential issues in simply allowing anyone to do anything on the victory stand. Randall:
“You could imagine a situation where every athlete that goes on the podium has something to talk about, something to demonstrate for and so then it becomes a duel of who can get the most attention. Then you’re completely not even talking about the athletic achievements of day; you’re having this battle. If it’s not prohibited, then who knows if [protests] would get attention?
“I think, ultimately, what athletes are telling us is, you know, we want to avoid that situation by creating better platforms to talk about this stuff and finding some really creative ways for athletes to come together in unity, in solidarity, to like everybody stand for these really important [issues], for equality and social justice and those kinds of things. I think I have some more productive discussions on those kinds of solutions as opposed to who’s going to the referee on who can do what on the podium.”
Both acknowledge the deep desire of athletes to make a stand for justice, which was illuminated by a rarely-remembered story from Carlos about his earliest Olympic ideas. Growing up in Harlem, he was a good swimmer and had a clear goal in mind:
“For 2 1/2 years, I prepared myself mentally and physically to get ready, because I was going to be the first Black swimmer to represent the United States. And I remember after that two years or 2 1/2 years, my father called me – and you can always look in your mom or dad’s eyes when they have to tell you something that’s going to be so hurting to you, and more hurting to them when they tell you – and he said ‘Johnny, we have to talk.’
“‘What’s up, Daddy?’
“He said, ‘Son, I know you want to go to the Olympics as a swimmer, but you are never going to be able to go in swimming in New York.’ He said, ‘I understand, son, but you’re not going to be able to go.’
“I said to him, ‘Daddy, we can’t afford it? He said, ‘Oh no, I can afford it.’ And I said to him, I said ‘why wouldn’t I be able to go?’
“And he took his arm and he put his arm out like that and he rubbed it on his hand, and when he did it, I thought he was rubbing a bug bite. But he told me, in essence, he said ‘Son, merely because of the color of your skin, you will never be able to fulfill your dream as an Olympic swimmer.’
“And he said to me, he said, ‘Son, when you went up to Highbridge Pool with us’ … and [in] just a matter of seconds, I can close my eyes even to this day and see mothers and fathers call their kids out of the water because the young black kids jumped in the water.
“And that made me realize right then that we had a problem, a very serious problem.”
Carlos never forgot that after switching to track and coming cross-country to run at San Jose State, along with fellow to-be-Olympians Tommie Smith and Lee Evans. Although almost a certain medal winner in 1968, he initially thought he should boycott the Games as a race-relations protest. But then a friend told him:
“‘John, you can go home and stay home. But there is someone who is going to go to the Olympic Games in your place and they are going to go the victory stand in your place. The question is, will they represent you the way you feel you need to be represented?’
“Right then, it was imperative that I got my boots back on and went back out to start to train to make this team. Not to disrupt the Games, not to make society disenchanted with the name Carlos, but just merely to pull the shades up and let them see and let them the pain of individuals that will supersede all medals, all glory of that day, is far more important to me and society at the time than my standing with my hand on my heart and tears in my eyes and make believe, just for that 15 minutes in the sun, that everything was right for everyone. All we wanted was an even playing field.
“Here we are, 53 years later, and we’re still at ground zero.”
Pompey and Randall both noted the difficulty in trying to get thousands of athletes worldwide on the same page in terms of awareness and information, including on the IOC’s dedicated Athlete365 site. But there have been some ideas about solutions:
● Randall: “One of our IOC Athletes’ Commission members, our liaison, said ‘Could we do something together at the Opening Ceremonies? Is it a minute of silence, that everybody stands there together in unity to take a stand together?’ That could be a really powerful statement to the world.
“Is it something we agree upon, something that’s allowed on the uniform to represent the Olympic values? I think there are some really creative ways to do that. How can we use our platform, Athlete365, to share the stories of athletes – I think a lot of people assume because you’re an Olympian or Paralympian, you haven’t faced racism, discrimination, all these things, so kind of sharing the stories of what athletes have faced, but how they have used sport to find common ground, to maybe be a role model, to help address these issues.
“We’re also really talking about how we make this a main priority and use some of the IOC’s resources to really tell these stories.”
● Pompey: “A lot of the responses we’ve gotten has fallen along a spectrum that the Rule is fine, that we address these issues in another forum and leave the Olympics to sports and that’s it. That still, I think, needs further discussion; in talking to these people, it’s not that they don’t believe in social justice or not that they don’t believe that racism doesn’t exist. I think more so their focus is on protecting this idea – this ideal – that everything is perfect on the podium, everything kind of withers away at the Olympics and we’re supposed to share this moment together.
“And for some of the people that are in that experience, the battles that they fought to get there don’t go away and they want to share that moment differently. I think looking at solutions … the idea and the suggestion [is] if there’s a way to collectively with the member nations and the IOC address these issues before they come up, before we get to the podium; at the Opening Ceremonies or maybe making available other venues of the Olympics where that sort of thing is allowed, it protects the podium and it protects the view that everyone is used to seeing from the Olympics.”
Randall noted the next steps: “We’re continuing to collect feedback. We hope to come out with a survey by the end of the summer that’s really going to give some quantitative data on how athletes are feeling and then we hope by the Executive Board meeting in October that we have a proposal put together.”
This is one area where the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Games – which would be in its second week right now – is actually a positive development for all concerned.