The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee has announced its guidelines for demonstrations by athletes at upcoming U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Trials events in the United States.
Limited in scope, the USOPC’s document, titled “Participant Rules for Racial and Social Demonstrations,” will be a test for regulations in a politically-divided nation. As sports have become increasingly a pulpit for protests, debate has raged over the International Olympic Committee’s Rule 50, which says that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
The USOPC, which has jurisdiction over all Olympic Trials events in the United States, is testing the waters with a less restrictive policy.
The USOPC will limit its rules to the venues themselves, meaning that once, for example, swimmers leave the CHI Health Center in Omaha, the restrictions are limited.
With specific focus on Racial & Social Justice Demonstration, which is expected to dominate the conversation, the USOPC says that they will allow R&S demonstration that “do not include any impermissible elements” and is aimed at “advancing racial and social justice” or “promoting the human dignity of individuals or groups that have been historically underrepresented, minoritized, or marginalized in their respective societal contexts.”
Among the specific approved demonstrations listed in the manual include:
- Wearing a hat or face mask with phrases such as “Black Lives Matter” or “Trans Lives Matter” or words such “equality” or “justice”
- Orally advocating for equity/equal rights for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) individuals, or other historically underrepresented, marginalized or
- 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.
The USOPC has listed impermissible elements, including wearing any clothing with a hate symbol or hate speech on it (the USOPC points to the list maintained by the Anti-Defemation League here, which includes 214 symbols). Among the items outlawed will be the confederate flag and the acronym “ACAB” which stands for “All Cops Are Bastards,” and is an anti-police slogan.
- Wearing a hat or face mask with a hate symbol or hate speech on it. *A list of recognized hate symbols can be found at https://www.adl.org/hate-symbols.
- Using language expressing hatred or Discriminatory Remarks towards a historically minoritized or marginalized group, including but not limited to Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), LGBTQ+ individuals, and individuals with disabilities.
- Making hand gestures affiliated with hate groups, like white supremacist or terrorist signs.
- Violent protests or acts that damage property at the Trials Venue or physically threaten or harm other people.
- Actions/behaviors physically impeding athletes’ right to compete, such as blocking lanes by laying on a track or otherwise interfering with a competition.
- Display of historically discriminatory signs or flags, such as the Confederate flag.
- Defacing, distorting, or causing physical harm to a national flag.
- Protests aimed explicitly against a specific organization, person, or group of people.
In general, the USOPC seems to be trying to draw a line between protesting in favor of more rights for minority or underrepresented groups, and protesting against a certain group.
One example that could be prominent, in addition to the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, is the growing murmur over the Chinese treatment of the Uyhger minorities in China. In this example, promoting improved conditions, recognition, and rights for the Uyhger minorities in China would be acceptable, but protesting against the Chinese government would not be allowed: a subtle, but discernible, gap.
In a more sporting-specific example, jurors would have to delineate between, for example, a podium protest against an athlete convicted of doping, like we saw at the 2019 World Championships, and a protest in favor of ‘clean sport.’ In that case, an athlete’s public comments when asked about the protest may be scrutinized.
The USOPC says that punishments for violations of the rules will be proportionate to the violations and range from warnings and public apologies to removal of funding and disqualificaitons.
The USOPC specifically commits in the document to support participants’ rights to demonstrate within the guidelines, though warns that it would not take action against third parties (such as sponsors, politicians, or possibly even competitors) that criticize or take action against those athletes for their demonstrations.
The USOPC will continue to publicly support Participants’ right to engage in R&S Demonstrations under these Rules, and will not make any public statement intended to undercut or indicate a lack of support for a Participant’s R&S Demonstration. Participants should be aware of the possibility that third parties
may react to a R&S Demonstration themselves, that some of these reactions may be negative, that the USOPC will not be able to prevent those third parties from making statements or taking actions of their own, and that each Participant must make their own personal decision about the risks and benefits that may be involved.
The USOPC acknowledges in the document that “no policy can provide specific or definitive guidance for every possible demonstration” and offers athletes two outlets to ask questions about the policy, either by reaching out to USOPC Athlete Services ([email protected]), or via the Office of the Athlete Ombuds, which is an independent body designed to represent the interests of USOPC athletes at [email protected]
The USOPC is facing scrutiny from all sides, via athletes, the public, sponsors, and even Congress, over how it approaches demonstrations by its athletes. At the 2019 Pan American Games, the organization received criticism over its handling of podium protests. In the wake of the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020, there was perceived hypocrisy after the USOPC released a statement that said they “stand with those who demand equality and [wants] to work in pursuit of that goal” after punishing two athletes (thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden) for the respective actions of raising a fist on the podium and kneeling on the podium when receiving medals.
After that, USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland issued an apology and developed a committee to “challenge the rules and systems in our own organization that create barriers to progress.”
The real challenge of the rules will come at the Olympic Games this summer, where the USOPC does not have ultimate jurisdiction. If the IOC chooses to remain hardline about its rules, a rule that is unlikely to completely quell podium protests even at its strictest, the USOPC could be caught between supporting their athletes and challenging the IOC.
The IOC has not made a final decision about Rule 50 in Tokyo, but has indicated after discussions with its Athletes’ Commission (led by former Olympic gold medal winning swimmer Kirsty Coventry) that podium protests would be outlawed, but that other opportunities for athletes to express their protests would likely be offered.