Earlier today, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) reaffirmed its position outlawing podium protests at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which are tentatively to be held in the summer of 2021.
In doing so, the organization has again grossly miscalculated the weight of the threats that they are making, and have set up a battle that they cannot win among a growing mountain of battles facing the global sports body.
When these threats were first made, the focus in swimming was around protests designed to criticize internal political structures of sports, like the protests by Mack Horton and Duncan Scott over the doping response to Chinese swimmer Sun Yang at last summer’s World Championships.
But more-and-more, the focus of the IOC’s reaffirmed policy will shift back to where it began: the stage of racial injustice.
When Tommie Smith and John Carlos for raising their fists on the podium of the 200-meter run at the 1968 Summer Olympics, then-IOC president, an American and renowned Nazi apologist Avery Brundage, came down hard on the American duo, forcing the United States Olympic Committee to expel them from the Games.
But the world in 2021 will be very different, especially for the Americans, who live at the epicenter over the last month of an outcry about the treatment of black people following the death of unarmed black man George Floyd in the hands of Minneapolis police.
While the conflict is nothing new, the 2020 revival of generations-old themes of racism has shifted the culture enough that USOPC president Sarah Hirshland was forced to apologize to American athletes over punishments levied following podium protests at the 2019 Pan American Games that happened just a year ago.
The NFL too has recanted its policy after quashing on-field player protests in an effort to appeal to a certain portion of its demographic that loathed them when Colin Kaepernick acted as the movement’s lightning rod in 2016.
Even NASCAR, which among major American professional sports has the biggest problems with diversity, has seen the seeds of a cultural shift. Bubba Wallace, the only black driver in NASCAR’s top-level Cup Series, will drive a car this weekend emblazoned with the #blacklivesmatter hashtag and other symbols related to the Black Lives Matter movement.
- Note: within an hour of the publishing of this article, NASCAR banned the Confederate flag at its events.
The American calculation, at least, has shifted to the point for sporting organizations where they risk more by killing the movement than by supporting it.
The IOC executive board has 1 American among its ranks, Anita DeFrantz, who is, ironically, a black woman. It will be up to her to impress upon the IOC, often shielded from the world in gilded castles, the earnestness of the movement.
Whether the IOC’s ban on podium protests has any effect or not is hinged on two things:
- Whether National Olympic Committees decide to support the athletes or the IOC; and
- What the IOC’s appetite is for expelling athletes from the Games
While in some authoritarian nations, where Olympic Committees can influence an athlete’s life beyond just their future in sports, any hint of a protest will be quickly quieted. USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland will be given no choice but to support the athletes. That’s a matter of existential crisis for the USOPC, which is already teetering under mounting scandal domestically. Any punishment of American athletes would lead to the loss of sponsorship at such a drastic rate that they would immediately have to retract their statement immediately.
If the IOC does decide to levy any kind of punishment upon athletes for protesting racial injustice, they are likely to see a momentum effect. The athletes would call their bluff, and dare the IOC to expel entire nations from the Games. It would lead to a massive global interest and likely the highest-ratings ever, but it would come with a cliff that the Olympic Games as we know them would soon tumble over the edge of.
Protests would spread like wildfire through the American teams, at a minimum, with other countries following on.
NBC is a side player in this whole narrative. NBC’s portrayal of the Olympic Games is predicated on a narrative of national pride and uplifting stories, rather than hard-hitting, critical journalism. While NBC does have journalistic arms, in the Olympic Games they are far more financial partner than disinterested commentator. But, NBC faces the same crisis as the USOC – if they were to stop showing podium protests to appease the IOC, the backlash would be huge on domestic soil.
There will be podium protests at the Tokyo Olympic Games. The more times the IOC reminds us of their ban on podium protests, the greater the likelihood is that it will happen. The athletes, ultimately, will support the other athletes. Expulsion from the Games for supporting the Black Lives Matter movement would, frankly, be a publicity and marketing windfall for any athlete upon whom that punishment was levied, which helps soften the downside risk to a protest. And if the punishments start coming, the protests will come even faster. Eventually, people with no intention of going to the Games to protest in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement could find themselves driven to protest a parallel thread of athletes’ rights within the Olympic Movement.
The IOC, as with most international sport governing bodies, has a massive ego, and very little interest in admitting it was wrong. So, how this likely will manifest is with toothless warnings to athletes who podium protest, with the IOC trying to find a balance between making their point and not setting off a riot in the Athletes’ Village.
I can understand the IOC’s perspective. The world is a big place, and between race conflicts, genocides, wars, and land disputes, the Games could easily boil over into chaos if it became a political free-for-all. And the IOC can’t allow protests to spill over into athletes refusing to compete (as we’ve seen in the Arab-Israeli sphere).
But the podium protests are not the point to draw the line in the sand. The podium is an athlete’s opportunity to present himself or herself to their home nation, as a hero, as a symbol, as an ideal of what the nation should embody and strive for. And for that reason, it seems like a podium protest for racial justice might be exactly what the Olympic movement has always been about, afterall.
This feels like the NFL in 2016. It feels pretty obvious that the IOC is making the wrong decision, but that they might be the last ones to realize it.
I hope that the IOC figures this out before the Tokyo Games roll around. Any battle between the athletes and the IOC on this topic will distract from the primary point of the protests, and run the risk of ruining the competitiveness of the Game.
Regardless of what the IOC does, podium protests will be a focal point of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The only decision left is whether the IOC wants to be remembered for supporting their athletes or fighting them.