This editorial is the opinion of its author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of SwimSwam.
The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games will be marked by speed, strength, and height. They will be marked by incredible athleticism, and unparalleled, historic, record-setting defeats.
But, this will not be the narrative that will light-up the news channels across the world, that will trend highest on Twitter, and that will electrify the populace.
Instead, the lingering echo of these Olympics will be protests.
Two high-profile podium protests this weekend at the Pan American Games, both by American athletes, have added even more momentum to what feels like a runaway train as Tokyo approaches.
Hammer thrower Gwen Berry, a Black American, stood atop the podium in Lima on Saturday and raised a fist. She, of course, didn’t invent this protest: it echoed sport’s most famous podium protest, from the 1968 Olympic Games, when American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised the same fist in Mexico City. The symbol at the time was broadly recognized as a “Black Power” salute, but Smith himself declared it a “Human Rights” salute.
A day earlier, White American fencer Race Imboden knelt atop the podium as the American anthem played to celebrate the United states’ victory in the team foil event. His protest was contrasted by the fact that he stood atop the podium with 2 of his teammates, both of whom stood. He too, of course, did not invent this protest: NFL players Eric Reed and Colin Kaepernick once knelt during the anthem before an NFL game that sparked a wave of controversy about that league over the twin plights of patriotism and racism in the United States: one that spilled briefly over to the pool when swimmer Anthony Ervin knelt in Brazil at a low-level novelty meet there.
As a wave of populism sweeps geopolitics, that feeling has also swept into the world of sport, where athletes have begun to seize the power of the giant stages upon which they stand. Athletes in sport have long been disenfranchised of their bargaining power, of their statement power, and of their voice on matters both in and out of sports. Protesting in such a public manner forces the powers that be to provide their discipline in public, not behind closed doors or via quiet shadowbans. Now those shadowbans are viewed under a spotlight.
While the latest protests in Lima have revolved around topics like racism, gun control, United States president Donald Trump, police violence, and generally politically leftward messaging, not all involve the politics of nations. As we saw at the Swimming World Championships 2 weeks ago, some of these protests are about the internal governance of sport: Commonwealth swimmers Mack Horton of Australia and Duncan Scott of Great Britain both refused to engage with Chinese swimmer Sun Yang after he won gold medals in the 400 and 200 freestyles, respectively, to express their displeasure that Sun Yang was allowed to compete after an incident involving an anti-doping sample collection last year and a vial of his blood being smashed.
The protests, which have generally come from athletes representing ‘westernized’ nations, have received substantial support in their home countries, especially by the populations which generally already agree with those positions. There is, however, no reason to believe that the lean of the protests will remain in unison. When this wave gains full steam, it is likely that protests will begin from across the political spectrum. It is inevitable that an Arab athlete will refuse to compete against an Israeli out of protest over Israeli control of Palestine. In that rivalry, the refusal to take the podium while the other’s national anthem plays seems like small potatoes.
If the IOC does not have a plan of attack, they will be left scrambling, and if there’s something that organizations like the IOC don’t do well, it is reacting quickly to controversial subjects. In 1968, the International Olympic Committee indelicately threatened to banish the entire US Olympic track and field team if they did not suspend Smith and Carlos and bar them from the athletes’ village. In 2008, Milorad Cavic was barred from further competition after protesting against the recognition of independence of Kosovo from Serbia by wearing a t-shirt on the podium that read “Kosovo is Serbia.” At the World Championships, everyone involved, including Sun, who barked a response to Duncan Scott over his protest, received warning letters.
The matter of the appropriateness of these podium protests will not be clean-cut, though I would suspect that the judgmental audience will cleanly divide themselves into one camp or the other, allowing little room for nuance in the debate. Some will support their athletes and their right to protest, others will debate the value of “time and place” for these statements. We’ll likely see sweeping generalizations about the protests, though they don’t all carry the same significance: some will protest matters inside of the walls of sport, and some will protest domestic and international politics that don’t center around sports. And ultimately, the crux of the story is not about the protests themselves, though that will be the focus of the broader narrative.
Within the halls of sport, the real narrative is this: will the athletes, standing with the biggest loudspeaker they will ever have in their lives, be successful in clawing back power? How will the Olympics move forward when the entire concept has been built and thrived financially upon ideas of ‘nationalism’ when athletes begin to protest their own flags? It’s a catch-22 for the IOC: they’ve built their brand on the ceremony that now gives the athletes a stage to protest. And which tipping point will come first: the one that will wield ultimate change, or the one where enough of the public becomes bored, disinterested, or frustrated with the protests and the impact of the protests begins to drain?
The protests will come, and they will come with frequency, until they are stopped. The irony is that the answers to the questions above are, ultimately, more dependent on the reaction of the current power structure than the actions of the athletes themselves, anyway: whether the IOC stokes the fire, whether they support the athletes’ rights to protests, whether they fairly and equitably respond (or don’t respond) to protests on either side of the political spectrum, and where they draw their lines.
Stick around after the races are run, the swims are swum, and the points are tallied. That’s when the real battle of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will begin.