Tokyo 2020: Protest Games or Awakening Olympic Games?

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Gwen Berry does not come to Tokyo with a simple medal in mind. The American hammer thrower is also weighing all of her options for protesting on the podium, should she ever get on it.

She already did. Once, in 2019, Berry raised his fist when the US national anthem began playing as a form of protest against social injustice in his country. And last month, when The Star-Spangled Banner blew over the speakers during selection trials in the United States, she turned her back on the American flag.

“When I get there (Tokyo), I’ll find something,” said Berry recently, who confronted International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach through a New York Times opinion video.

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Bach and the IOC will watch. And they cautioned – on July 16, Bach, in an interview with the Financial Times, advised athletes to avoid “conflicting” statements at the Games. Athletes are unlikely to listen, however.

These militant athletes who raise their fists, take their knees and shatter glass ceilings don’t just push the limits of human effort. For them, the biggest sports platform is also a platform to use their influence to bring about social and political change, even if it means angering the Olympic bosses, who could squirm in their seats and push a disapproving sigh every time that happens. .

Sign of the times

“When the world is moving in one direction, it’s very difficult for the sport to stand still or move the other way,” sports scientist Ross Tucker told The Indian Express. “So it is inevitable that the awakening culture that has prevailed over the past few years will have an impact on sport. “

There is plenty of evidence that Tokyo is already a “waking Olympics”. The IOC, which likes to propagate the idea of ​​political neutrality, has already been forced to relax its rules concerning events at the Games; the organizers then had to overturn their “discriminatory” rule which prohibited nursing mothers from bringing their babies with them to Tokyo; for the first time, a transgender athlete will compete in the Olympics; and one of Japan’s most powerful men – a former prime minister, no less – had to resign as head of the organizing committee for saying “women talk too much”, he was replaced by a woman who has competed in several Olympics.

“It will be a very bright Olympics, I think so,” US sprinter Rai Benjamin, who recently ran the third fastest 400m hurdles race in history, told the newspaper. “I can’t say that I will be one of those people who protest, but I support the other athletes. It’s important right now (for the athletes to speak out), especially with what happened after England lost their final to Italy (in the European Football Championship).

Relaxed rules

Until the Rio Games five years ago, an IOC rule – Rule 50 – prohibited any kind of demonstration or political / religious statements at Olympic venues. But weeks after the Games ended, American football player Colin Kaepernick knelt before a game to protest social injustice. Kaepernick was ostracized, but the trend he established has spread like wildfire. Kneeling before a match in many events is now as common as posing for a pre-match group photo.

READ | Tokyo 2020, an Olympic Games like no other

The IOC, after initially insisting that the Tokyo Games would remain apolitical, had to give in. They reluctantly announced new rules, which will allow more freedom of speech even though protests will still be banned on the medal podium and on the playing field. But The Guardian reported that all of Tokyo’s social media teams 2020 have been banned from posting such images.

The players, however, couldn’t care less. Britain’s women’s football team knelt before their kick-off against Chile on Wednesday, proving that this time around the focus will not only be on athletic performance, but also on this that happens before and after matches.

“Streisand effect”

A statue of the Black Power Salute from the 1968 Games (Dr Harry Edwards at Legacy Plaza)

This showdown between athletes and officials will be a constant theme in the background. Tucker calls it the “Streisand effect,” where an attempt to suppress information only makes it more prevalent.

“You can understand, in a commercial world with pressure from sponsors and the IOC’s desire to avoid alienating anyone, why they are so nervous that athletes tackle big issues. important policies, ”Tucker said. “Look at how angry and upset people have become during political protests in sport, and you realize that the IOC is seeing its ‘clients’ turn against sport. So I have sympathy for them, but I also don’t see how anyone can silence the opinions of the athletes. “

Especially in an age when athletes can reach millions of followers directly on issues ranging from Black Lives Matters to motherhood to gender rights. American sociologist and civil rights activist Harry Edwards, architect of the Olympic human rights project that led to the Black Power Salute at the 1968 Games, says social media made athletes “more informed and better controlled by defining their own images, actions and careers than at any other time in history.

“No one will sponsor or watch IOC leaders compete in a single athletics or gymnastics event, or play basketball, etc.,” Edwards told The Indian Express in a statement. “It is the athletes who are and who embody the substance, the spirit and the value of the Olympic Games. And ultimately, the athletes must have a larger and more authoritative hand in the exercise of power and authority over the Olympic institution. “

Difference of opinion

Indeed, all this could lead to contradictory ideals, as we saw during the Euro where on occasion a team took the knee while the other did not. It was also a sign of the times that the doping ban of American sprint sensation Sha’Carri Richardson for smoking weed before his competition became a race issue and sparked a debate over rights and rights. harms of marijuana use.

Or the debate over the participation of Laurel Hubbard, the New Zealand weightlifter who is expected to become the first transgender athlete to compete in the Olympics. “You have to be inclusive and respect gender, but how does sport adapt to that, given that it’s biology, not gender that matters? Tucker said.

He also argues that many of these conversations are “driven by fear.” “With the IOC fearing to alienate the fan base and the sponsors, the athletes fear recriminations if they express these views,” he said.

At least the likes of Berry aren’t afraid. Still. Even when her sponsors pulled out when she first protested in 2019. And even when, last month, she was labeled by many in her country as “anti-national.” When the anthem was played, she turned her back to the flag and draped a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “athlete activist”.


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