While there were no noticeable podium protests at the U.S. Olympic swimming Trials, hammer thrower Gwen Berry, a Black American, protested on the podium at the U.S. track and field Olympic Trials on Saturday.
She was receiving her bronze medal on the podium from the hammer throw event, which secured her position to represent the U.S. at the Tokyo Games. Then, the national anthem began to play.
“I feel like it was a set-up, and they did it on purpose,” Berry said according to the New York Times. She said the anthem was supposed to play before the athletes got on the podium. Throughout the meet, the anthem had been played just once per night (as it was at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials), and Berry had been staying out of the spotlight during those moments. But a delay in playing it on Saturday meant that it wound up being played as she received her medal.
Berry turned away from the flag while the national anthem played. Towards the end, she placed her black T-shirt, which read “Activist Athlete,” over her head.
Gwen Berry, a track and field athlete, turned from the U.S. flag when she was on the podium at the Olympic trials and the national anthem began to play.
“I feel like it was a setup,” Berry, who has spoken out against systemic racism, said of the timing. https://t.co/y1DxUB8sUL
— The New York Times (@nytimes) June 28, 2021
“My purpose and my mission is bigger than sports,” Berry said, according to the Guardian. “I’m here to represent those … who died due to systemic racism. That’s the important part. That’s why I’m going. That’s why I’m here today.”
Berry’s protest was met with a storm of headlines and social media messages, both in an uproar and in support of her actions.
She responded to those upset over her decision yesterday on social media:
These comments really show that:
1.) people in American rally patriotism over basic morality
2.) Even after the murder of George Floyd and so many others; the commercials, statements, and phony sentiments regarding black lives were just a hoax
— Gwen Berry OLY (@MzBerryThrows) June 28, 2021
George Floyd was a Black American who was killed by Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin who knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes last year. Chauvin was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in April.
The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) released protest guidelines for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Trials in March.
Berry’s actions fall within the USOPC’s protest guidelines which reference the podium and the national anthem, explicitly saying kneeling during it is permitted. Most of the impermissible actions provided by the USOPC include hate speech or violence.
Permitted actions in the USOPC’s “Racial & Social Justice Demonstrations,” area are defined as: “A Demonstration, which does not include any Impermissible Elements, that is explicitly aimed at (1) advancing racial and social justice; or (2) promoting the human dignity of individuals or groups that have historically been underrepresented, minoritized, or marginalized in their respective societal context.”
Among the permitted actions are:
- Wearing a hat or face mask with phrases such as ‘Black Lives Matter’ or ‘Trans Lives Matter’ or words such ‘equality,’ ‘justice,’ ‘peace,’ ‘respect,’ ‘solidarity,’ or ‘inclusion.’
- Orally advocating for equity/equal rights for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) individuals,
- Holding up one’s fist at the start line or on the podium.
- Kneeling on the podium or at the start line during the national anthem.
- Advocating for equal treatment of underrepresented, marginalized, or minoritized groups around the world, or against systemic barriers to such equal treatment.
- Advocating for communities free from police violence, or against systemic police discrimination against Black individuals or other marginalized populations.
Berry has had a history of activism on the international stage. She raised her fist during the national anthem at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima after winning gold.
At the time, Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter stated “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
She was issued a 12-month probationary period meaning she could have faced more serious sanctions for further breaches of the USOPC code of conduct. This cost Berry multiple sponsors and about two-thirds of her income, she told NBC Sports at the time.
In December 2020, The Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice recommended that the USOPC end its prohibition of the peaceful protest of athletes at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
In response, USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland declared the USOPC will not sanction athletes for their protests as long as they follow the USOPC guidelines.
The USOPC Athlete Advisory Committee (AAC) has also been an avid supporter of athletes’ right to peacefully protest. Three-time Olympic gold medalist Anthony Ervin, a member of the AAC, released a video on the subject in April saying:
“Are you to be atop that podium, and those moments, for those few moments, you will lead your country. You wanna take a knee? Lead us by taking a knee. You wanna raise a fist? Lead us by raising a fist. You wanna cry tears of joy? Lead us with your tears.”