Carlos and Smith say IOC still not fully committed to athletes’ freedom to protest

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: AP</span>
Photograph: AP

On 2 July, the International Olympic Committee announced changes to Rule 50, which prohibited athletes from protesting at Olympic sites. It loosened some regulations, allowing competitors in Tokyo freer expression during interviews, press conferences and in mixed zones. But now, a group of more than 150 athletes, professors, members of sports organizations and human rights and social justice experts from around the world has written an open letter calling for further action.

“We recognize the changes made to athlete expression at the Tokyo Games,” the letter reads. It continues: “While we appreciate the strides the IOC/IPC made in promoting athlete expression, we do not believe the changes made reflect a commitment to freedom of expression as a fundamental human right nor to racial and social justice in global sport.”

Related: ‘A fundamental right’: Dina Asher-Smith urges Games to allow podium protests

US hammer thrower Gwen Berry, who was sanctioned by the IOC after raising her fist during the anthem at an awards ceremony at the 2019 Pan American games, is among the signatories. (Berry also turned away from the US flag during the Olympic trials in June.) So are Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the sprinters who famously raised their fists during a podium ceremony at the 1968 Olympics.

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The letter makes several concrete demands of the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee, whose rulebook features similar restrictions on athlete expression. “The IOC/IPC cannot be committed to the preservation of human dignity while silencing the most vulnerable voices within the Olympic and Paralympic community,” the letter reads.

The signatories ask that in Tokyo and at the Beijing Games in 2022, governing bodies refrain from imposing sanctions on athletes who protest within internationally-recognized human rights frameworks—including on podiums. They also ask for a comprehensive review of Rule 50 after the Beijing Games

In its response to the letter on Friday, the IOC maintained its commitment to the rules as they stand, claiming widespread athlete support, and its position that the Olympics be an apolitical event. “Rule 50.2 provides a framework to protect the neutrality of sport and the Olympic Games,” the statement said. “While asking for more opportunities for athlete expression during the Olympic Games, global athlete representatives expressed their support for keeping the podium, the field of play and the ceremonies free from any form of protest.”

Team GB sprinter Dina Asher-Smith told the Guardian this week she believes banning protests against racism would be a mistake.

“Protesting and expressing yourself is a fundamental human right,” said Asher-Smith. “If you were to penalise someone for standing up against racial inequality how on earth would that go? How on earth are you going to enforce that?”

“When people feel strongly about something, particularly when it’s something that’s so close to your heart – and as a black woman you think about racism – I just think you can’t police people’s voice on that. That’s an incredibly difficult thing to do.”

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