Long-banned athlete protest acts expected at Tokyo Olympics

Jul 19, 2021, 8:02 PM | Updated: Jul 20, 2021, 8:07 am

TOKYO (AP) — Athlete activism is making a comeback at these Olympic Games.

When play starts at the Tokyo Games on Wednesday, acts of free expression of the kind athletes were long banned from making at the Olympics will take center stage.

The British women’s soccer team has pledged to take a knee before kickoff against Chile in their Olympic tournament opener in Sapporo, to show support for racial justice.

“We want to show to everyone this is something serious,” Britain defender Demi Stokes said. “What a way to do it, on an Olympic stage.”

One hour later in Tokyo, the United States and Sweden should follow in a gesture recognized globally since the murder of George Floyd 14 months ago. The England and Italy men’s teams took a knee before the European Championship final this month.

What is common in modern soccer starts a new era for Olympic athletes more than 50 years after the raised black-gloved fists of American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City made them icons and pariahs.

Still, it is a limited freedom allowed by the International Olympic Committee, which just this month eased its longstanding ban on all athlete protest inside the Games field of play. The change followed two reviews in 18 months by the IOC’s own athletes commission which advised against it.

Gestures are now allowed before races and games start, on the field, and at the start line.

Medal podiums remain off limits for protest, and even the IOC concessions left each sport’s governing body free to retain the ban.

Lawyers who study Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter — that banned any kind of “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” until July 2 — see issues ahead with athletes and the IOC heading on a fast track to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

“I think we can clearly expect some frictions around Rule 50 in the coming weeks,” sports law academic Antoine Duval said when hosting a recent debate on the inevitable athlete activism at Tokyo.

FIFA has had a relaxed view on taking a knee since players were inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement last year.

“FIFA believes in freedom of speech and opinion, and this applies to players, coaches, officials and any other person or organization within the scope of FIFA’s activities,” soccer’s world body said in a statement.

Expect raised fists at least on the start line in the main Olympic stadium when track and field events begin on July 30.

World Athletics president Sebastian Coe, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1,500 meters, has gone even further. He put in play medal ceremonies where protest is denied as it was for Smith and Carlos in 1968.

“I’ve been very clear that if an athlete chooses to take the knee on a podium then I’m supportive of that,” Coe said inside Tokyo’s National Stadium last October.

Soccer and athletics are the progressive end of the 33 sports governing bodies at these Summer Games.

Swimmers’ pre-race introductions are similar to track athletes, one by one toward their starting block, but governing body FINA followed the IOC announcement by refusing to allow any gesture that could be viewed as protest.

FINA president Husain al-Musallam spoke of the pool deck “remaining a sanctity for sport and nothing else,” where there should be “respect for the greater whole, not the individual.”

That stance was at odds with the new Rule 50 guidance yet was defended by IOC president Thomas Bach last week.

“There is not really a ‘one size fits all’ solution,” Bach said when asked about the apparent contradiction of some Olympic athletes having fewer freedoms than others in Tokyo.

It will fall to the IOC to decide on potential disciplinary cases which it promised to handle “in full transparency.”

This could lead to inconsistencies, according to Mark James, who teaches sports law at Manchester Metropolitan University in England.

“There will be flashpoints,” James said in the Rule 50 debate hosted by Netherlands-based Asser Institute. “Why are some (gestures) acceptable but some are a breach?”

James anticipated issues over the political intent of flags, and if the more open approach to athlete free speech in Tokyo would survive in China at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

What seems clear is a shift in the social media era of athletes’ influence over event organizers and sports bodies.

“It is not just an IOC challenge, this is global sport,” said David Grevemberg from the Geneva-based Centre for Sport and Human Rights.

“This is actually, I would say, a crossroads for all sport.”


More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/Olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Belgium's Leandro Trossard, left, and Croatia's Josko Gvardiol fight for the ball during the World ...
Associated Press

‘Little Pep’ Gvardiol coming up big for Croatia at World Cup

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — For 90 minutes, the hulking, masked mass that is Josko Gvardiol kept Belgium’s big-name strikers at bay with timely tackles — none bigger than his stop on Romelu Lukaku two minutes into stoppage time. Then the 20-year-old Croat who is fast becoming the most sought-after center back in Europe went over […]
1 day ago
Christian Pulisic of the United States attends a press conference before a training session at Al-G...
Associated Press

US star Pulisic on track to play against Dutch in World Cup

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Christian Pulisic is on track to play for the United States in its World Cup round of 16 match against the Netherlands on Saturday, Pulisic left Tuesday’s final group stage match against Iran at halftime after bruising his pelvic bone in a collision with the goalkeeper while scoring in the 38th […]
1 day ago
Spain players leave the pitch at the end of the World Cup group E soccer match between Japan and Sp...
Associated Press

Spain in recovery mode after losing to Japan at World Cup

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — It’s not how Spain imagined reaching the knockout phase of the World Cup: finishing the group stage with a loss and having to rely on other teams to help it advance. Spain survived but heads into the round of 16 against Morocco with bruised confidence after losing 2-1 to Japan. “We […]
1 day ago
FILE - Philadelphia Eagles' Josh McCown speaks during a news conference after an NFL wild-card play...
Associated Press

Josh McCown hopeful to get a coaching opportunity

Josh McCown played quarterback for 12 teams across nearly two decades in the NFL, and learned a different offense almost every season. He looks forward to sharing his knowledge and experience as a coach. “I love being part of teams and being part of a group,” McCown said on the AP Pro Football Podcast. “You […]
1 day ago
Belgium's head coach Roberto Martinez, left, hugs Belgium's Eden Hazard after the World Cup group F...
Associated Press

Belgium’s golden generation is over, where now for Martinez?

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — His eyes welling up, Roberto Martinez said his goodbyes and left, his next whereabouts unknown. It is the end of an era for Belgium’s golden generation. But for the man who led it to third place at the 2018 World Cup, it is the beginning of something new. A return to […]
1 day ago
head coach Louis van Gaal of the Netherlands talks with Frankie de Jong as he leaves the pitch duri...
Associated Press

US coach Berhalter to draw on Dutch lessons at World Cup

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Gregg Berhalter knows plenty about Dutch soccer — he turned pro in the Netherlands 28 years ago. He will look to draw on the lessons he learned there when he coaches the United States against Oranje on Saturday for a place in the quarterfinals of the World Cup in Qatar. The […]
1 day ago
Long-banned athlete protest acts expected at Tokyo Olympics