The Olympics Is Shutting Down Public Protest. Here's Why We Should Be Concerned

Ever heard of a little thing called free speech?

Katherine Singh
olympics shutting down protests: the iconic photo from the 1968 Olympics featuring American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the podium and making the Black power salute
American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists in the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics (Photo: Getty Images)

On January 9, the International Olympics Committee announced that it’s banning all political protests at the 2020 Summer Games, which are set to be held in Tokyo, Japan from July 24 to August 9. In a three-page-guideline, the IOC reiterated Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter. Per the document, athletes are not permitted to protest or host demonstrations at all Olympic venues; these displays of protest include: displaying any political messaging (including signs or armbands) and any gestures of “a political nature,” which includes any hand gestures or kneeling.

According to the IOC, athletes do have the right to express political views in press conferences, interviews and on social media (which, I guess, is something?).

“We believe that the example we set by competing with the world’s best while living in harmony in the Olympic Village is a uniquely positive message to send to an increasingly divided world,” the IOC wrote of its decision. “This is why it is important, on both a personal and a global level, that we keep the venues, the Olympic Village and the podium neutral and free from any form of political, religious or ethnic demonstrations.”

But while the IOC might think that its decision is helping to send a positive message during a time when everything in the world is a literal dumpster fire, it’s is actually kind of scary—here’s why.

First of all, it’s hypocritical AF

The IOC’s recent decree couldn’t have come at a more divisive time. With racism still very much a going concern in both Canada and the United States (ICYMI, the latest is that people of Iranian descent are being detained at airports, pretty much only because they’re Iranian), WWIII trending and the Sussexes leaving the royal fam after years of harassment and racism, it’s safe to say that most people are on edge when it comes to the state of the world.

Which makes ignoring said trash fire almost impossible, and makes anyone who thinks they can easily just tune it out super naïve—especially when it comes to the world of sports. Because it’s pretty impossible to separate politics and sports…and that goes all the way to the top.

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In the newly emphasized guidelines, the IOC stressed that: “It is a fundamental principle that sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference.” Which as USA Today opinion writer Nancy Armor points out in a January 9 op-ed, is a load of BS, especially considering the IOC is so politically involved itself. Not only is the IOC linked to the United Nations via its observer status (which gives the UN direct access to the IOC and its 206 National Olympic Committees), but as Armor pointed out, IOC President Thomas Bach utilized the Olympic games as a means to try and smooth over tensions between North and South Korea. When the announcement was made that the countries would be competing as a unified team for the 2018 winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Bach said that the games were “hopefully opening the door to a brighter future on the Korean peninsula.” And, after the countries proposed a joint bid for the 2032 Olympics, Bach hailed it as “one further step showing how sport can once more make a contribution to peace on the Korean Peninsula and the world.” Which sounds like politics and sports intersecting if I’ve ever heard it.

And who could forget the infamous Russian doping scandal, which found that the Russian government was involved in helping its athletes dope for better performances—and then helped cover it up.

Not to mention the fact that, as TSN anchor and reporter Kayla Grey points out, the games have become an arena for political leaders to take part and represent their countries as well. “We can’t just stay in our lane and say, ‘Oh, this can just be sports driven,'” she says of the Games. “Because, especially at this level, when you’re having political figures show up; when you’re having presidents, when you’re having prime ministers show up at these games and represent themselves, [then] you’re having people of power represent themselves outside of athletics itself; [so] you cannot separate the two.

“And if the IOC wants to [separate the two], [then] stop having people show up that are political figures,” she concludes.

It’s naïve to the political time that we’re in

And not only is it hypocritical, but also super naïve; because, hey IOC, if you haven’t noticed, the world is literally burning right now, and platitudes don’t help. Grey agrees that sports can help be a uniting force, and has seen it firsthand in her reporting, most recently of the Toronto Raptor’s iconic 2019 Championship run. But she says it’s foolish to sports can mend all our divisions. “I think that people in sport love to hide behind that BS of how sports is supposed to unite us,” she says. “Yes, sports is one of the rare things that unites a nation; but guess what? We are people at the end of the day and we are fooling ourselves if we’re pretending that everything is OK.”

“Look at the news over the last couple of weeks,” Grey says. “How could we just go out there as human beings and not address what’s going on in our world? What’s unifying us right now is not sport,” she continues, “what’s unifying us right now across the globe, is that things are not OK. It is not peaceful and I don’t think that it’s smart for anyone to pretend that things are OK— because that’s not how change happens.”

Furthermore, the IOC is failing to take into account that athletes are real people who are dealing with some of these issues firsthand. And it’s forcing athletes to choose between playing the sport that they love and standing up for their beliefs. And in many cases, standing up for their humanity. It’s obvious that the decree over kneeling is in reference to NFL player Colin Kaepernick. The football player—then on the San Francisco 49ers— first made headlines all the way back in August 2016 when he sat during the national anthem before a preseason exhibition game against the Houston Texans. (This later turned to kneeling during the anthem.) Kaepernick wasn’t just kneeling for the heck of it; but doing so in response to police-involved shootings aimed at unarmed Black Americans and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, stating: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of colour.”

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 As a Black man himself, he’s protesting violence aimed at him—a Black man on and off the football field. It’s incredibly naïve to think that Kaepernick—or any athlete protesting an attack against their identity—would be able to separate himself from his Blackness as soon as he steps on the field; or that he should be expected to do that at all. In many ways, his Blackness is a political statement. “It’s disappointing because for athletes that put their efforts on the line, that put all that training in to compete on the highest stage, on the highest level to show up as themselves as they are, they’re being told that they cannot be themselves,” Grey says. “They’re just there to shut up and do the sport as opposed to show up as a full entity, as a full human being.”

This becomes especially pertinent for athletes of colour in the Olympics who may be lesser know—not a Lebron James or a Kaepernick, and therefore—without fame and notoriety on their side—more susceptible to racism and hate. “If you are a person of colour, if nobody knows who you are in your country or your community, you could be susceptible to all the things that a person of colour could go through without people knowing what you do for a living,” Grey emphasizes. Which not only makes these individuals more capable of speaking to injustices on the world stage, Grey says, but makes this IOC decree even more disappointing; because it’s essentially asking them to filter their experiences. “If you’re going to ask an athlete to show up as themselves, you need to be ready for an athlete to show up as their whole selves,” Grey says.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the IOC’s rules also ignore the very real fact that sports—and athletes—can play a big role in effecting real change. Athletes like Lebron James have made considerable contributions to their communities outside of the sport they play, but also in thanks to it. In 2018, James opened his “I Promise” school in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. The school not only provides students with access to meals and college tuition, but offers their parents access to job placement services and help acquiring their GEDs.

And it’s a slippery slope to completely restrict someone’s right to free speech

Let’s make no mistake, what the IOC is doing is seriously problematic; because it’s restricting these athletes’ rights to free speech. While Grey says she wasn’t super surprised by the IOC’s ruling (her initial reaction? “Definitely eyebrow raising”), that doesn’t mean it’s any less unsettling—especially when it comes to the very particular language the IOC used in its guidelines. “You can’t be [protesting] on the podium, you can’t be [protesting] on the field, you can’t be [protesting] during the opening and closing ceremony,” Grey reiterates. “So it seemed to me that they were very intentional about banning athletes from their freedom of speech when the stage was at its highest— and that is very problematic.”

While the IOC may think it’s fooling us by allowing athletes to speak out in interviews and press conferences, Grey sees through the BS. “Let’s let’s be very frank here, unless you’re medaling, unless you’re finishing in say the top heat of your group, a lot of the world is not hearing that audio,” she says. Which is what makes athletes’ abilities to protest and voice their opinions on the world stage—on a podium or during the ceremonies—so vital; because the world will be watching and seeing those one-in-a-lifetime moments.

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“So that’s still also another form of silencing,” Grey says. “And so to me, it’s just incredibly disappointing.”

And it’s a form of silencing that can have immense personal and professional repercussions for athletes should they choose to disredard it. While the IOC’s guidelines state that transgressions of these rules by athletes will be evaluated by the National Olympic Committee, if history is anything to go by, the outcome for athletes who do choose to stand up for what they believe in…isn’t great. In 1968, after standing by in solidarity with American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos as they made the Black power salute, Australian runner Peter Norman was essentially ostracized from the sport in his own country; barred from ever again competing in the Olympics (despite qualifying). Similarly, Kaepernick has been essentially blacklisted in the NFL since January 2017.
This silencing of athletes is frustrating for another reason, according to Grey—because they’ve been silenced for so long already. “For so long people have looked at athletes and have had this assumption of ownership over them as if they’re a toy or something,” Grey says. “For so long, it’s been assumed that they don’t have agency over their body or agency over their mind and their intellectual [capabilities] have always been questioned; And I think that now more than ever, people need to speak up. Politicians need to speak up, athletes need to speak up. We can’t just silence people because it doesn’t make things look good.”

And if they’re allowed to do so, it’ll be better for everyone. “I think that a full rounded athlete to me is an empowered athlete. That is when you get the best products on the field,” Grey continues. “An empowered athlete can change the world. And when you are silencing an athlete, when you are telling them to tailor who they are as a person, when you are telling them that they cannot speak out on issues that affect them personally and their community; it should not be allowed.”

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