The leadership of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s (USOPC) Athletes’ Advisory Council (AAC) has published a letter calling on the IOC and IPC to abolish IOC Charter Rule 50, which prevents athletes from protesting during the Olympic Games.
Rule 50 Text: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic
sites, venues or other areas.”
The leadership of the AAC, a group elected by their peers to represent the voice of Olympians in the American Olympic movement, collaborated with John Carlos, the 1968 Olympic bronze medalist in the 200 meters. Carlos, now 75, was one of two runners, along with Tommie Smith, who raised a fist on that 200 meter podium to protest racism in the Olympic movement. Among his specific concerns were apartheid and racism in South Africa and Rhodesia, Muhammad Ali being stripped of his world heavyweight boxing title, and the presence of Avery Brundage as the president of the IOC. He also advocated for the hiring of more African-American assistant coaches.
Smith and Carlos were both expelled from those Olympics. Despite a persistent rumor, neither was stripped of their Olympic medals, though the IOC did consider it.
Earlier this month, the IOC reaffirmed its stance on rule 50, saying that it would punish protests happening on Olympic podiums.
Last summer, Olympic thrower Gwen Berry raised a fist on the podium at the 2019 Pan American Games. She was sent a letter of reprimand by USOPC CEO Sarah Hirschland and put on 12 months of probation. Hirschland has since apologized to Berry.
In swimming, Olympic champion Anthony Ervin knelt during the U.S. national anthem at the Raia Rapida meet in Brazil.
There is an expectation that these protests will grow in number at the Tokyo Olympics, which has been postponed to 2021. Athlete protests have grown both to bring attention to social issues, for example the police killing of black men in the United States; and sports issues, like the protests of Duncan Scott and Mack Horton at the 2019 World Championships over the presence of Chinese swimmer Sun Yang amid a doping investigation.
“Athletes will no longer be silenced,” the letter begins. The committee goes on to lay out their belief that athlete participation in social movements is crucial to the Olympic movement, not in opposition to it as the IOC has argued.
The letter also points out the IOC’s hypocrisy in exalting the actions of Smith and Carlos in its museums but not allowing current athletes to participate in the same movements.
“Carlos and Smith risked everything to stand for human rights and what they believed in, and they continue to inspire generation after generation to do the same,” the letter reads. “It is time for the Olympic and Paralympic movement to honor their bravery rather than denounce their actions.”
The letter from the AAC did not lay out a specific framework by which the athletes requested to be able to protest. Rather, they asked to have a voice in the decision-making.
“Instead, sports administrators must begin the responsible task of transparent collaboration with athletes and athlete groups (including independent athlete groups) to reshape the future of athlete expression at the Olympic and Paralympic Games,” the letter reads. “Let us work together to create a new structure that celebrates athletes who speak about issues in alignment with human rights and the 7 principles of Olympism.”
The full letter from the AAC can be read below:
Athletes will no longer be silenced.
We are now at a crossroads. The IOC and IPC cannot continue on the path of punishing or removing athletes who speak up for what they believe in, especially when those beliefs exemplify the goals of Olympism. Instead, sports administrators must begin the responsible task of transparent collaboration with athletes and athlete groups (including independent athlete groups) to reshape the future of athlete expression at the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Let us work together to create a new structure that celebrates athletes who speak about issues in alignment with human rights and the 7 principles of Olympism.
Freedom of expression is recognized as a fundamental human right by the United Nations because it is essential to societal and individual well-being. Aligning with such principles will allow athletes to give the world hope beyond sport- hope that voices matter and are a powerful tool for change. The Olympic and Paralympic movement simultaneously honors athletes like John Carlos and Tommie Smith, displaying them in museums and praising their Olympic values, while prohibiting current athletes from following in their footsteps. Carlos and Smith risked everything to stand for human rights and what they believed in, and they continue to inspire generation after generation to do the same. It is time for the Olympic and Paralympic movement to honor their bravery rather than denounce their actions.
We expressed these sentiments on a call with the IOC Athlete Commission and appreciate them taking the time to listen to American athletes as well as reflect with John Carlos on the role Rule 50 has played in the oppression of athletes. This call was just the beginning of the collective work necessary to find a solution that respects and values the power and importance of the athlete voice for social change.
Han Xiao, USOPC AAC Chair, Table Tennis
Cody Mattern, USOPC AAC Vice-Chair, Fencing
Bree Schaaf, USOPC AAC 2nd Vice-Chair, Bobsled
Moushaumi Robinson, USOPC AAC Leadership At Large, Track & Field
Sam Kavanagh, USOPC AAC Leadership At Large, Para-Cycling
Nick LaCava, USOPC AAC Leadership At Large, Rowing
John Carlos, 1968 Olympian