THE BIG PICTURE: USOPC releases its Games-time protest rules, with hat or mask messages, raised fists, kneeling, advocating against police violence and more all approved

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“It is important for all U.S. delegation members at the Games to remember that the [International Olympic Committee] and [International Paralympic Committee] rules govern all Games participants, including U.S. delegation members. The USOPC’s new delegation rules do not replace those international rules, rather, they supplement them by better defining the USOPC’s own requirements and commitments.

“As it pertains to IOC Rule 50 and IPC Handbook section 1, paragraph 3, subsection 2.2, we support and respect each athlete’s right as an individual and as an American to make their own decision on this topic, though we can’t control the actions others may take in response. We have confidence that our athletes will make the best choice for themselves.”

That’s from an 11 June 2021 letter from Bahati VanPelt, the head of Athlete Services for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, introducing its delegation rules for demonstrations at the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Across seven pages, the rules outline what is to be considered appropriate based on a
“collaborative effort between the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice and USOPC.” The rules specifically acknowledge and emphasize that the IOC and IPC’s rules may be much different and applied differently. But it does say what the USOPC’s views of demonstrations are.

● In the area of “Racial & Social Justice [R&S] Demonstrations,” permitted actions are defined as:

“A Demonstration, which does not include any Impermissible Elements, that is explicitly aimed at (1) advancing racial and social justice; or (2) promoting the human dignity of individuals or groups that have historically been underrepresented, minoritized, or marginalized in their respective societal context.”

This is followed by a list of six specific examples of approved actions:

“• Wearing a hat or face mask with phrases such as ‘Black Lives Matter’ or ‘Trans Lives Matter’ or words such ‘equality,’ ‘justice,’ ‘peace,’ ‘respect,’ ‘solidarity,’ or ‘inclusion.’

“• Orally advocating for equity/equal rights for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) individuals,

“• Holding up one’s fist at the start line or on the podium.

“• Kneeling on the podium or at the start line during the national anthem.

“• Advocating for equal treatment of underrepresented, marginalized, or minoritized groups around the world, or against systemic barriers to such equal treatment.

“• Advocating for communities free from police violence, or against systemic police discrimination against Black individuals or other marginalized populations.”

In these instances, “The USOPC will not sanction Participants who engage in R&S Demonstrations at Games Venues.”

● There is also a detailed list of “impermissible” actions, which are specified to include:

“Any element of a Demonstration that (a) advocates specifically against other people, their dignity, or their rights, which may include Hate Speech, Racist Propaganda, or threatening, abusive, or Discriminatory Remarks; (b) physically impedes or discourages Games or medal ceremony participation by another Participant; (c) causes physical harm to others or to property; or (d) violates applicable laws.

“Impermissible Elements include, for example, the use of slurs, discriminatory remarks or gestures that denigrate, ridicule, or mock a person or persons based upon their race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, economic status, nationality, or country of origin.

“These are further examples of conduct that will be considered an Impermissible Element:

“• Wearing a hat or face mask with a hate symbol or hate speech on it. *A list of recognized hate symbols can be found at

“• Using language expressing hatred or Discriminatory Remarks towards a historically minoritized or marginalized group, including but not limited to Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), LGBTQ+ individuals, and individuals with disabilities.

“• Making hand gestures affiliated with hate groups, like white supremacist or terrorist signs.

“• Violent protests or acts that damage property at the Games Venue or physically threaten or harm other people.

“• Actions/behaviors physically impeding athletes’ right to compete, such as blocking lanes by laying on a track or otherwise interfering with a competition.

“• Display of historically discriminatory signs or flags, such as the Confederate flag.

“• Defacing, distorting, or causing physical harm to a national flag.

“• Protests aimed explicitly against a specific country, organization, person, or group of people.”

In addition, the rules also state that “supporting or opposing a political group, environmental issue, or animal rights issue” is not part of the “R&S” demonstration definition and is subject to discipline. The sanctions protocol includes:

“If a Participant engages in a Demonstration that includes Impermissible Elements at a Games Venue, then the USOPC will determine a proportionate consequence for the violation of these Rules based on the severity of the violation.”

There are procedures in place for this, possibly including a hearing if requested by the protestor. The USOPC’s possible sanctions cover a wide range, specified as (1) a warning, (2) limits on access to the venues or Olympic Village, (3) expulsion from the Games; (4) a ban from participating on future USOPC programs; (5) loss of USOPC funding in the future and (6) requirement of a formal apology “or completion of training or education on diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

And then there is the IOC and IPC. The USOPC rules state no less than six times – in seven pages – that it is not the ultimate arbiter on protests at the Games; a typical example:

“Any sanctions under the International Rules will be determined by the IOC/IPC (and/or the IF), not the USOPC. The USOPC will not participate in imposing any sanctions on R&S Demonstrations. In imposing any sanctions itself, the USOPC will take into account any IOC/IPC/IF sanctions also being imposed.”

The rules also note, specifically, that there may be reactions to protests:

“Participants should be aware of the possibility that third parties may react to a R&S Demonstration themselves, that some of these reactions may be negative, that the USOPC will not be able to prevent those third parties from making statements or taking actions of their own, and that each Participant must make their own personal decision about the risks and benefits that may be involved. The USOPC has resources available through Athlete Services to support athletes (e.g., mental health, security).”

The USOPC has staked out its position, clearly in contradiction to the recommendations of the IOC Athletes’ Commission from April, which after months of discussions and quantitative surveys concluded to “Preserve the podium, [Field of Play] and official ceremonies from any kind of protests and demonstrations, or any acts perceived as such.”

The question of sanctions was handed over to the IOC’s Legal Affairs Commission, which has not yet released its regulations for how disciplinary measures will be handled in Tokyo. As the USOPC’s rules have acknowledged, whatever the USOPC might not do to a protesting athlete, the IOC might well decide to do.

And, it owns the Games.

In addition to the lists of medal winners and record-setters at next month’s Games in Tokyo, watch also for lists of protests and protestors, which will be kept with equal attention in what IOC chief Thomas Bach has lamented as our “aggressively divisive” world.

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