International Olympic Committee Seems to Fear Kaepernick-style Protest in Tokyo

New rules from the IOC explicitly forbid Olympic athletes from kneeling in protest

Photo by Bryan Turner on Unsplash

The long shadow Colin Kaepernick has cast over the NFL for the past three years may extend to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) released guidelines describing the strict limitations on athletes demonstrating during the games. The restrictions extend to all Olympic venues, including the Olympic village where the athletes live, the field of play, medal ceremonies and the opening and closing ceremonies. While the demand athletes refrain from demonstrating isn’t new, the IOC document explicitly mentions kneeling as a forbidden gesture. That’s about Kaepernick specifically and making sure athletes following his lead don’t do so in Tokyo. “Hand gestures” are a vaguer category that is no doubt meant to capture the Black power salute of a raised fist. The gesture was broadcast across the world when Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested during the medal ceremony for the 200m at the 1968 Mexico City games. The image is arguably one of the most iconic in all of sports. It became the defining moment of the ’68 games. The IOC doesn’t want a similar moment overshadowing the games in Tokyo this year.

The Olympics are supposed to be a strictly feel-good event whose focus is unity. Smith and Carlos made people feel bad and sparked anger with their demonstration, which was cast as ineffective. Sportswriter, Brent Musburger, who was in Mexico City covering the games, described them as “black­-skinned stormtroopers” making a “juvenile gesture” in a report he filed. After some consideration, I decided to quote the entire short article, not only to provide context, but because, if you were to remove the Olympic-specific and other identifying references and replace Smith and Carlos’s names with Kaepernick’s and Eric Reid’s, it would be hard to tell if the piece about ungrateful Black athletes had been written in 1968 or 50 years later in 2018. I think that’s important to emphasize: how fixed this attitude is in some circles after a half-a-century.

Bizarre Protest by Smith, Carlos Tarnishes Medals

by Brent Musburger

MEXICO CITY-Tommie Smith and John Carlos must be labeled unimaginative blokes if they can’t come up with a stronger and more effective protest than the one they staged her last night during the Olympic medal ceremony honoring their accomplishments in the 200-meter run.

Smith and Carlos looked like a couple of black-skinned storm troopers, holding aloft their black-gloved hands during the playing of the National Anthem. They sprinkled their symbolism with black track shoes and black scarfs and black power medals. It’s destined to go down as the most unsubtle demonstration in the history of protest.

But you’ve got to give Smith and Carlos credit for one thing. They knew how to deliver whatever it was they were trying to deliver on international television, thus insuring maximum embarrassment for the country that is picking up the tab for their room and board here in Mexico City. One gets a little tired of having the United States run down by athletes who are enjoying themselves at the expense of their country.

Protesting and working constructively against racism in the United States is one thing, but airing one’s dirty clothing before the entire world during a fun and games tournament was no more than a juvenile gesture by a couple of athletes who should have known better.

If Smith and Carlos were convinced that the ends justified their black power demonstration during the National Anthem, they should have avoided the award ceremony altogether. If it’s true, as Hayes Jones says, that an athlete competes for himself but walks to the stand for his country, then a more courageous protest would have been for Smith and Carlos simply to stay away and not pick up their medals.

Their ignoble performance on the victory stand completely overshadowed a magnificent performance by two black athletes. It’s a shame. Smith will not now be remembered as that splendid runner who so thoroughly demolished the world’s record that he ran the last 10 yards with both arms held high in triumph over his head as he crashed through the finish line in the fantastic time of 19.8.

He will instead be remembered as the militant black who shook a black glove and black track shoe during the playing of the National Anthem. It hardly seems on the level with his first accomplishment, and it did absolutely nothing to relax racial tensions any place.

The modern Olympics have purported to be politically neutral since their inception, and athletes are always warned there may be punishment for making political statements. There are few things more political than a nation’s flag, though. It is a symbol of who is governed by whom and where sovereign rights begin and end. These matters can be hotly contested. As can the unjust treatment of people within the territory represented by a flag. By recognizing some territories and not others, the organizers of the Olympics are making explicitly political judgments. They can also lend legitimacy. Most infamously, Nazi Germany was allowed to host the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. It was an orgy of white supremacist propaganda that was thankfully smashed up by Jesse Owens’s dominance on the track.

There is a connection to that disgrace and the shameful treatment of Smith and Carlos 32 years later in Mexico City. Avery Brundage, an American Olympian, who dedicated his life to the games, then head of the Amateur Athletic Union, vouched for Nazi Germany’s commitment to Olympic principles in the run-up to the 1936 Berlin games. Brundage had risen to president of the IOC by 1968 and used his power to threaten the U.S. national team with expulsion from the games if its leaders didn’t punish Smith and Carlos for protesting. Brundage eventually bullied the U.S. Olympic Committee into suspending Smith and Carlos from the team and sending them home. (Brundage was also the driving force behind keeping the Olympics amateur and athletes unpaid, earning him the nickname “Slavery Avery.”)

The IOC is being proactive about scuttling athlete demonstrations in Tokyo, in part, because, since Kaepernick’s protest, athletes representing the United States have kneeled or raised their fists on the field of play and during medal ceremonies of international competitions. I’m sure at least some of them are considering doing so or making a similar statement in Tokyo. The Olympics are a much bigger platform, though. There will be billions of people watching. Perhaps some athletes are hoping Nike’s support for Kaepernick will extend to them and offer some measure of protection. It might, but I wouldn’t advise anyone to count on it. Kaepernick was an NFL quarterback, who’d been to a Super Bowl, had a national profile, and was already a multimillionaire when he started his protest. Nike took a risk with Kaepernick and won. It’s unclear if they’ll extend their embrace to anyone who can’t reliably turn a profit for them.

Kaepernick is a unicorn. No one else can walk his path. Each person who decides to take a stand will have their own burdens and hardships. Anyone thinking of following in Smith, Carlos’s or Kaepernick’s footsteps shouldn’t do so lightly. Athletes competing under the U.S. flag in a foreign country face complications Kaepernick didn’t have to consider, but perhaps Kaepernick can quietly make himself available to discuss his experience privately with any of the athletes considering demonstrating in Tokyo. It’s impossible to prepare for the fallout fully, but Kaepernick is still in the breach and can help support someone to be readier than he was. Megan Rapinoe, an early supporter of Kaepernick’s, who also took a knee during the national anthem, will likely be at the Tokyo games and hopefully can do the same.

This is all, of course, much bigger than Kaepernick and the United States. There is so much upheaval happening the in the world. There are people whose nations are war-torn. Others are on the brink of armed conflict and their people are hoping cooler heads will prevail. Some people have no nation to call home ­– they are stateless. Fascism is making a comeback. The climate crisis has engulfed Australia in devastating fires. The flooding in Bangladesh and other nations has been catastrophic. Climate-related natural disasters have ravaged much of the world. There are plenty of people who desperately want things to change, for governments to chart a new course. Some of these people are Olympic athletes who will use that platform to have their say no matter what the IOC does to try to stop them.

*squinting in Nanny of the Maroons* | Read my essay collection, DISPOSABLE PEOPLE, DISPOSABLE PLANET: | IG: kitanyaharrison

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