Skip Nav

Can Athletes Protest at the Olympics?

Athletes May Be Penalized For Wearing Black Lives Matter Apparel at the Olympics

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter run at the 1968 Olympic Games, engage in a victory stand protest against unfair treatment of blacks in the United States. With heads lowered and black-gloved fists raised in the black power salute, they refuse to recognize the American flag and national anthem. Australian Peter Norman is the silver medalist.

Photo: American sprinters Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) demonstrating during the men's 200-meter medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympic Games.

Two weeks ago, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) officially announced that athlete protests will remain banned at the Olympics — specifically on the "field of play" and medal podiums and at official ceremonies — to abide by Rule 50 in the IOC Olympic Charter and protect the "political neutrality" of the Games. Rule 50 states, "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas." International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Handbook Section 2.2 features similar language; however, a spokesperson confirmed to POPSUGAR that the IPC Athletes' Council meets with the IPC Governing Board in late May to discuss guidelines for demonstrations at the Paralympics this summer.

The IOC, together with the IOC Athletes' Commission, said on April 21 that 70 percent of the 3,500-plus athlete competitors surveyed viewed demonstrations at the opening and closing ceremonies and amid competition as "not appropriate." And 67 percent of athletes responded with disapproval of demonstrations on the podiums.

"The respondents were most likely to believe it appropriate for athletes to demonstrate or express their individual views in the media, in press conferences and in the mixed zones," the IOC wrote in its announcement. The Athletes' Commission offered recommendations for the IOC to hold a moment of solidarity against discrimination during the opening ceremony and to have inclusive messaging throughout the Games reflected in the Olympic Oath, the Olympic Village, and athlete apparel. While language like "peace," "respect," "solidarity," "inclusion," and "equality" were proposed for that athlete apparel, according to the Associated Press, slogans such as "Black Lives Matter" will not be allowed

When POPSUGAR reached out to the IOC to verify AP's report, the committee did not address Black Lives Matter specifically and instead referred back to the announcement published on April 21 that reiterates Rule 50 broadly prohibits "political, religious, or racial propaganda." IOC continued, "The Rule strives to ensure that the focus at the Olympic Games remains on athletes' performances, sport, unity and universality," adding that the IOC and the IOC Athletes' Commission are "fully supportive of the freedom of expression." It confirmed that there are opportunities for athletes to express their views at the Games during press conferences, interviews with media, and team meetings.

Though the recommendations cited last month did not mention specific gestures of protest, in January 2020, the IOC Athletes' Commission had clarified that examples of prohibited acts include: "gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling." Breaches of Rule 50 at the Games will most likely be examined on a case-by-case basis, and sanctions will be drafted ahead of the Games, according to USA Today.

Athletes Allowed to Demonstrate at US Olympic and Paralympic Trials

Athletes participating in the US Olympic and Paralympic trials are allowed to demonstrate peacefully. On March 30 of this year, the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) announced participant rules for anyone wanting to demonstrate during the trials. This came after the USOPC initially said in December that it will no longer penalize athletes who choose to take part in peaceful protests, supporting the efforts of the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice that wants to amend these longstanding policies put in place by the IOC and IPC governing bodies.

The USOPC will allow people to kneel during the national anthem; wear a hat or face mask that says "Black Lives Matter," "Trans Lives Matter," or words like "equality" and "justice"; speak about equal rights for marginalized and underrepresented communities; and advocate against police discrimination. It will not, however, condone demonstrations that advocate "specifically against other people, their dignity, or their rights." This includes hate speech, racist propaganda, or discriminatory language. A demonstration that violates laws, causes physical harm to others, or "physically impedes or discourages Trials or medal ceremony participation by another Participant" is also not condoned.

History of Athletes Protesting at the Pan American Games and the Olympics

One American athlete who was reprimanded for protesting? Gwen Berry. At the 2019 Pan American Games, she raised a fist and bowed her head on the podium when accepting a gold medal for the hammer throw. She, along with fencer Race Imboden, who won gold in his sport at the Pan Am Games that year as well and took a knee, demonstrated separately but for the same cause: racial and social justice. The USOPC put them both on a 12-month probation.

Five decades prior was the iconic protest in 1968 from American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Atop the Olympic podium for the men's 200-meter medal ceremony in Mexico City, each raised a fist while the national anthem played. Their demonstration is referred to as the Black Power salute, though Smith wrote in his autobiography that the action was more than that; he said it was a demonstration for human rights. What was then known simply as the US Olympic Committee wanted to issue a warning, but after pressure from the IOC, the men were expelled from the Games.

"The silencing of athletes during the Games is in stark contrast to the importance of recognizing participants in the Games as humans first and athletes second."

Fast forward to this century, and the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice stated so powerfully: "The silencing of athletes during the Games is in stark contrast to the importance of recognizing participants in the Games as humans first and athletes second. Prohibiting athletes to freely express their views during the Games, particularly those from historically underrepresented and minoritized groups, contributes to the dehumanization of athletes that is at odds with key Olympic and Paralympic values."

By trying to keep sports "neutral," this, the council argued, targets "historically marginalized and minoritized populations within the Olympic and Paralympic community, most notably Black athletes and athletes of color, who have competed and excelled in Olympic and Paralympic Games against the backdrop of various social injustices and turmoil."

Taking into account the demonstrations we've seen from professional athletes across sports, it's unknown what any such protests at this summer's Games will bring, as the IOC and IPC have ultimate authority. Until then, athletes can demonstrate peacefully without fear of penalization at the Olympic and Paralympic trials in the coming months.

Image Source: Getty / Bettmann
Latest Fitness