Athletes who make political or social justice protests at the Tokyo Olympics were promised legal support Thursday by a global union and an activist group in Germany.
The pledges came one day after the International Olympic Committee confirmed its long-standing ban on “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” on the field of play, medal podiums or official ceremonies.
Raising a fist or kneeling for a national anthem could lead to punishment from the IOC. The Olympic body’s legal commission should clarify what kind of punishment before this year’s games, which open on July 23.
The IOC also said that slogans such as “Black Lives Matter” will not be allowed on athlete apparel at Olympic venues, though it approved using the words “peace,” “respect,” “solidarity,” “inclusion” and “equality” on T-shirts.
The IOC’s athletes’ commission cited support to uphold Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter from more than two-thirds of about 3,500 replies from consulting athlete groups.
“This is precisely the outcome we expected,” said Brendan Schwab, executive director of the World Players Association union. “The Olympic movement doesn’t understand its own history better than the athletes.”
Speaking to The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Australia, Schwab said “Any athlete sanctioned at the Tokyo Olympics will have the full backing of the World Players.”
The independent group representing German athletes pledged legal backing for its national team.
“Should German athletes decide to peacefully stand up for fundamental values such as fighting racism during the Olympic Games, they can rely on the legal support of Athleten Deutschland,” Johannes Herber, the group’s chief executive, said in a statement.
In a statement, another athlete group, Global Athlete, encouraged athletes to “not allow outdated ‘sports rules’ to supersede your basic human rights.” It said the survey’s methods were flawed.
“These types of surveys only empower the majority when it is the minority that want and need to be heard,” said Ireland’s Caradh O’Donovan, a karate athlete who helped start Global Athlete.
While the IOC said cases would each be judged on merits, athletes who follow the iconic salutes by American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics still could be sent home.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee inducted Smith and Carlos into its Hall of Fame in 2019. It pledged in December not to take action against athletes protesting at their Olympic trials for Tokyo. On Thursday, it released a statement saying its plans to update its recently released policy over protests in response to the IOC’s decision have not changed.
“Nor has our commitment to elevating athlete expression and the voices of marginalized populations everywhere in support of racial and social justice,” CEO Sarah Hirshland said.
And the USOPC’s athletes’ group also put out a statement saying it was disappointed to see no “meaningful or impactful change to” Rule 50.
“Until the IOC changes its approach of feeding the myth of the neutrality of sport or protecting the status quo, the voices of marginalized athletes will continue to be silenced,” the athletes’ group leadership said in a statement.
Both Schwab and Herber said minorities would be protected from discrimination if the IOC recognized the human rights of athletes to express themselves.
The IOC erred by trying to regulate the place where a protest might take place instead of the statement’s content, Schwab said, adding athletes’ freedom of expression in Olympic venues “should be respected, protected and indeed promoted.”
Athletes breaching Rule 50 can be sanctioned by three bodies: the IOC, their sport’s governing body, and their national Olympic committee (NOC).
Leaders of two of the biggest Olympic bodies — World Athletics president Sebastian Coe and FIFA president Gianni Infantino — have publicly opposed punishing their athletes for social justice statements. Coe gave his annual award last December to Smith, Carlos and the other sprinter on the 200-meter podium in Mexico City, Peter Norman of Australia.
In the past, the NOCs have played a major role in sanctioning athletes who run afoul of Olympic rules. But with the USOPC taking itself out of that role, Schwab noted “there is enormous confusion over responsibility to sanction.”