This year, people from all walks of life used their voices to protest against the injustice they saw around the world. Among those participating in protests in 2020 were athletes in the NBA, WNBA, U.S. women’s soccer, NFL, and other fields, who received comparatively less outrage than professional players have in the past (see: Colin Kaepernick), but historically, the Olympics has been a space where athletes who protest issues of racial justice are swiftly punished.
John Carlos and Tommie Smith, the former track and fielders who raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics amid the civil rights movement, were memorably suspended from Team USA for their actions at the time.
Now the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee says it will no longer impose similar sanctions on athletes who demonstrate “peacefully and respectfully” in support of racial and social justice.
“The USOPC values the voices of Team USA athletes and believes that their right to advocate for racial and social justice, and be a positive force for change, absolutely aligns with the fundamental values of equality that define Team USA and the Olympic and Paralympic movements,” said USPOC CEO Sarah Hirshland in a statement from the organization on Thursday.
The decision came in response to the International Olympic Committee’s soliciting of recommendations for input on the issue of demonstrations at the games and was arrived at through the contributions of a Team USA Athlete’s Council on Racial and Social Justice formed this year, said the USPOC. Carlos was among the former Olympians whose experiences helped inform the decision, and in a letter to athletes, Hirschland extended an apology to him and others who have been reprimanded in the past for their demonstrations.
Just last year, hammer thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden were put on 12 months probation by USPOC for respectively raising a fist and kneeling at the 2019 Pan American games.
“It is now clear that this organization should have supported instead of condemned, and advocated for understanding instead of relying on previous precedent,” said Hirschland. “For that I apologize, and look forward to a future where rules are clear, intentions are better understood, and voices are empowered.”
The recommendation from USPOC will now go to the International Olympic Committee. The organization that governs the Games is currently considering whether to amend Rule 50 under the Olympic Charter, which prohibits “demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda” at any Olympic venues. The next Olympics will take place in Tokyo in Summer 2021.