Among the many inspiring displays at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington is a statue of U.S. Olympic athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos thrusting their clenched fists into the air as they received their gold and bronze medals at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. It was a defining moment of the era – two African American athletes representing the U.S. at the pinnacle of global athletics silently telling the world they were one with the struggle for racial equality.
But under a new rule adopted last week by the International Olympic Committee, such displays would be banned at this summer’s Games in Tokyo. It’s an absurd decision.
The IOC said the rule reflects its longstanding desire to insulate the international sports competition from controversy, and to not let political expressions steal the spotlight from “athletes’ performance, sport and the international unity and harmony that the Olympic movement seeks to advance.” So it will not allow “political messaging, including signs or armbands” nor “gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling.” Athletes will be able to raise issues in interviews with reporters and on social media, but not on the field or in the Olympic Village, nor during any Olympic ceremonies.
Yet an international competition between nations is inherently political, a reality the IOC has itself embraced upon occasion. Two years ago, it let North Korea co-host the 2018 Games with South Korea in part to display how sports can bridge political divisions. Asked afterward whether North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s interest in the Olympics was little more than a charm offensive, IOC chief Thomas Bach said: “If this charm offensive leads to peace talks, I welcome every charm offensive.” In 1984 the IOC banned South Africa – and rightly so – because the white minority government refused to renounce apartheid. And in 2015, the IOC agreed to recognize a team of refugee athletes – they competed in the 2016 Rio Games and will again this summer in Tokyo – to draw attention to the global refugee crisis. So maybe the concern about politics and controversy depends on who is protesting: the institution, or the athletes.
Granted, the Olympic Games have aspired to transcend politics, but in reality they never have been able to do so. And they shouldn’t. Teams march into the opening ceremonies under national flags and receive medals as national anthems are played. During the Cold War, the medal race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was a closely followed competition in and of itself, a harmless proxy of national pride. In fact, the 1980 U.S. “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Soviet hockey team resonates through time – it’s been memorialized at least twice on film – because of the political environment in which it occurred.
Nor can the IOC wall itself off from the world. Politics has forced its way into the Games, as well, most darkly with the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes by a Palestinian terrorist group. And then there are the boycotts. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, more than 60 countries stayed away from the 1980 Games in Moscow; 4 years later, the Soviet Union retaliated by leading an Eastern Bloc boycott of the Games in Los Angeles. Also, individual performances by athletes have long been perceived through symbolic lenses. Jesse Owens, a black American winning gold in prewar Nazi Germany, comes to mind. And we already mentioned the U.S. men’s hockey team.
The effort to stifle athletes who wish to make symbolic gestures runs counter to Western notions of freedom of expression. As it is, two U.S. athletes were put on 12 months’ probation in August after taking a knee and raising a fist at the Pan American Games in Peru. They didn’t mount a raucous demonstration, they didn’t interfere with the proceedings, they didn’t create an outlandish spectacle. They issued a silent protest, but that apparently was too loud for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee.
The IOC ought to rethink the ban on free expression. A clenched fist or a kneeling athlete will do little to disrupt the spectacle of the Olympics, and there is nothing to be gained by punishing athletes who use a few seconds in an international forum to draw attention to issues they feel deeply about. Of course that inevitably means allowing athletes to take public positions we and others disagree with. But if Olympics are to stand as an international symbol of harmony and peace, the IOC probably shouldn’t echo the oppressive tactics of silencing protest practiced by authoritarian regimes.