Tokyo 2020: History of podium protests at Olympics, will it repeat this year?

The Olympic movement needs to be kept neutral and cannot be expected to solve civil liberties issues that politics had failed to fix, Bach said in a video message

'Everybody respects the same rules'

Olympics chief Thomas Bach has pleaded for politics to be kept out of the Games, saying they would otherwise become as divisive as other areas of society.

The Olympic movement needs to be kept neutral and cannot be expected to solve civil liberties issues that politics had failed to fix, Bach said in a video message to the UN Human Rights Council.

"The Olympic Games are the only event that unites the entire world in peaceful competition," the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said.

"Everybody respects the same rules, standing together in solidarity. This universality and inclusiveness that define the Olympic Games require us at the IOC to be politically neutral."

(Photograph:AFP)

Uyghur protests

China, which will host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing next February, is facing scrutiny and boycott calls over several rights issues including the mass internment and other repression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and the clampdown on freedoms in Hong Kong.

Beijing has already hosted the 2008 summer Olympics.

"We have neither the mandate nor the capability to change laws of sovereign countries. We cannot solve human rights issues which generations of politicians were unable to solve," said Bach.

(Photograph:AFP)

Tommie Smith and John Carlos

It follows calls to relax rule 50.2 of the Olympic Charter, which states: "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee had already promised not to sanction American athletes for "respectful" demonstrations in support of racial and social justice at the Tokyo Games.

China, which will host the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, is facing scrutiny and boycott calls over several issues including the mass internment and other repression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and the clampdown on freedoms in Hong Kong.

Fifty-three years after Tommie Smith and John Carlos's iconic medal podium protest in Mexico City, a new generation of activist athletes is poised to take centre-stage at the Tokyo Olympics.

US sprinters Smith and Carlos faced the ultimate sanction for their black-gloved salute of defiance in 1968, expelled from the Games in disgrace and returning home to be greeted by widespread opprobrium.

But while attitudes to Smith and Carlos have shifted over time -- the duo are now celebrated as civil rights heroes -- the International Olympic Committee remains opposed to any kind of protest on medal podiums.

(Photograph:AFP)

Olympic Charter

It means that US athletes determined to use their platform to draw attention to racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd's murder last year are on a collision course with Olympic chiefs.

For years, the IOC has been guided by Rule 50 of its Olympic Charter, which dictates that "no kind of demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda" is permitted in Olympic sites or venues.

Yet that principle came under severe scrutiny during the tumult of 2020 and became viewed by critics as an outdated relic of a bygone era as athletes around the world demonstrated their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
 

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Anti-racism protests

In the United States, the anti-racism protests forced the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee into a dramatic U-turn.

In 2019, the USOPC had reprimanded hammer thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden for their protests on the podium at the Pan-American Games in Lima, warning that stiffer sanctions awaited athletes emulating them at the Olympics.

But the landscape was upended in the aftermath of Floyd's killing, with the USOPC reviewing its rules to say that protests such as kneeling or raising a clenched fist on the podium were now acceptable.

(Photograph:AFP)

The Star-Spangled Banner

While the rule change only applies to domestic competition, the USOPC has made it clear it will not sanction US athletes who protest at the Games in Tokyo that open on July 23.

"It is critical to state unequivocally that human rights are not political, and peaceful calls for equity and equality must not be confused with divisive demonstrations," USOPC chief executive Sarah Hirshland said.

Berry, sanctioned by the USOPC in 2019, says she will have no hesitation about protesting if she wins a medal in Tokyo. The 32-year-old staged a protest at last month's US track and field trials in Oregon, turning away from the US flag as "The Star-Spangled Banner" played during a medal ceremony.

(Photograph:AFP)

Political protests at the Games

The IOC released new guidelines on Friday softening a long-standing ban on political protests at the Games.

Athletes at Tokyo will be allowed to "express their views" before and after competing -- but not on the podium.

The changes mean competitors will be allowed to take the knee before events begin to highlight racial injustice, speak to the media and post online about their views, or wear clothing with a protest slogan at a press conference.

But protests cannot target people, countries or organisations, or their dignity, the IOC said.

(Photograph:AFP)

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