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Statues of two men with raised fists are in silhouette
A statue in honour of U.S. Olympians Tommie Smith, left, and John Carlos is seen on the campus of San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif. The pair of sprinters were expelled from the Olympics in 1968 after they raised their fists on the medals stand to protest racial inequality in the United States. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

The Olympics are ‘on the wrong side of history’ when it comes to free speech

An important debate is brewing about free speech at the Olympics. After years of the International Olympic Committee restricting the free expression of athletes at the Games, some prominent athletes are calling for the unlimited right to speak freely — including the right to protest.

The advocates include Canadian decathlete Damien Warner, an Olympic bronze medallist in 2016, who has said: “If there’s something on their mind, then athletes should be allowed to speak.” The IOC, he said, is “on the wrong side of history.” The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Olympic Advisory Committee takes a similar view.

In response, the IOC has relaxed its Rule 50 on “advertising, demonstrations and propaganda” to allow free speech in interviews and meetings, but has stood firm on the prohibitions against “political” statements on the field of play and during ceremonies. The committee threatens to punish any athlete who disobeys.

Understanding Rule 50

The IOC Athletes’ Commission supports Rule 50, saying it believes “the focus at the Olympic Games must remain on athletes’ performances, sport and the international unity and harmony that the Olympic Movement seeks to advance.”

But another of the recommendations from the Athletes’ Commission, following a survey and consultation process, was to “increase opportunities for athletes’ expression during the Games.”

“The feedback was that they didn’t want it to interfere with the competition itself, so ensuring that the competition itself was protected,” explained Rosie MacLennan, a double gold medallist in the trampoline and chair of Canadian Olympic Committee Athletes Commission.

In worldwide polling, Rule 50 has won the support of the majority of athletes for this position. The Canadian Olympic Committee Athletes Commission has reported that 80 per cent of surveyed athletes supported the rule.

Trampoline athlete Rosie MacLennan grips her thighs during a jump in her routine
Two-time Olympic trampoline champion Rosie MacLennan, chair of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s Athletes Commission, says most athletes are against podium protests. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Growing athlete activism

The push for free speech is an artefact of growing athlete activism in recent years in response to racism in European soccer, the unrelenting police violence against Black people and other minorities in countries like the United States and Chinese human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.

At the 2019 Pan American Games in Peru, two American athletes, fencer Race Imboden and hammer thrower Gwen Berry, conducted silent protests against “racism, gun control, mistreatment of immigrants, and a president who spreads hate” back home.

Read more: How the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics could heal a post-coronavirus world

For many years, Rule 50 completely prohibited critical athletes’ statements or demonstrations at games — and sporting bodies compelled their athletes to comply and athletes went along with it.

The style was epitomized by basketball superstar Michael Jordan, who famously avoided political statements “because Republicans buy shoes too.”

When the Canadian skier Laurie Graham likened herself to a cruise missile flying down the hill to a World Cup victory, I asked her not to use a metaphor of death and destruction for a peaceful activity like sport. She quickly agreed, which thrilled me. But then she said that she didn’t want to get in trouble with her sponsors, who told her to avoid controversy.

The need to speak out

As a competitor in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics who wrote a widely syndicated student newspaper column from the Olympic Village, I fully support the right to free speech. I have always believed that athletes should take responsibility for the circumstances and sports in which they are involved and they cannot do that without the right to speak out.

Athletes should be able to wear personal signifiers, such as Indigenous sashes or rainbow fingernail polish, both of which have been allowed or banned from competitions and ceremonies at different times.

Athlete with raised arm waving at crowd.
U.S. athlete Gwen Berry waves as she is introduced at the women’s hammer throw final during the 2019 Pan American Games. She and fencer Race Imboden were reprimanded by U.S Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland for violating Rule 50, which prohibits inside-the-lines protests at the games, after Berry raised her fist and Imboden kneeled on the medals stand at the Peru Pan-Am Games. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Free speech is an internationally established human right. It’s not something that should be conferred or denied by a vote. The majority should never be able to silence the minority.

I still subscribe to John Stuart Mills’ admonition that “if all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

The intercultural education cherished by the Olympic Movement would be enhanced by completely free speech. We can’t be hectoring others about what we believe, but we do need to be honest about who we are.

I’ve spoken in China about athletes’ rights. While few agreed with me, no one was shocked. They listened. So did I. The IOC should embrace and support such interactions and tell authoritarian hosts that this is what the Olympics are about.

What will the punishment be?

If some athletes still decide to protest in Tokyo or at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and are punished, that punishment will become the issue. I would be horrified by a repeat of 1968, when the IOC expelled U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos from the Mexico Olympics for protesting against poverty and racism from the victory podium — in effect banning them for upholding the Olympic aspirations.

Two athletes with fists raised in protest standing on Olympic podium.
In this 1968 photo, U.S. athletes Tommie Smith, centre, and John Carlos extend gloved hands skyward in racial protest during the playing of national anthem after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze for the 200 metre event at the Olympic Games in Mexico City. Australian silver medallist Peter Norman is at left. (AP Photo)

With all the challenges facing Tokyo and Beijing, it’s unlikely that Rule 50 will be reconsidered before both Games take place. But the issue won’t go away, and I would like to think the final restrictions will be abolished by the Paris Olympics in 2024.

In the meantime, athletes like MacLennan, who regularly consults Canadian athletes, should take advantage of the opening provided by the IOC consultation to push for ongoing athlete engagement and athlete-centered reforms on an international basis — including much more significant athlete voice and vote on decision-making bodies.

Once in-person meetings resume, athletes should revive the former practice of open meetings in the Olympic Village where they can introduce and discuss the issues most on their minds — including the geo-political issues that buffet the Games.

If there was genuine opportunity for athletes to become involved in sport governance and public policy, there would be far less reason for them to demonstrate.

Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, always saw the Olympics as a pedagogical project and athletes as the self-actualizing subjects of their activity and learning. If athletes are to learn, they need to learn to deal with political and intercultural issues and when and how to speak out.

The IOC should embrace free speech as a contribution to its highest goals.

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