Protests aren’t allowed at the Olympics—it’s the rule! Rule 50 to be exact. Rule 50 says that “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” But if you look back at the history of the Olympics, protests—whether against the rules or not—have taken place.
Because the Olympics is a huge global stage where messages about inequality, racism, anti-war sentiments, and other political and human rights topics can be expressed to a world audience. Where else would you be able to make such a grand statement, right? In 1968, American Olympic gold medal winner Tommie Smith and American Olympic bronze medal winner John Carlos wore black gloves and raised a fist in the air during the medals ceremony as a symbol of Black power and the fight for civil rights. Australian Olympic silver medalist Peter Norman, joined his fellow Olympians by wearing an American “Human Rights” badge during the ceremony. As a result, the three athletes were banned from any future Olympic Games.
What’s Different Now?
Times have changed, however, and the idea of protesting at the Olympics as a right and not as a menace has grown louder. After all, if the Olympics are all about peace, equality, friendship, and the coming together of different nations, why shouldn’t peaceful protests and freedom of speech be allowed no matter the place or circumstance at the Olympics? Why not, indeed! Perhaps that’s why the International Olympic Committee decided to relax Rule 50. According to the updated rule, athletes are allowed to express themselves before the start of a competition or during the introduction of themselves or their team. The caveat, however, is that athletes must not target “people, countries, and/or their dignity.” It’s an interesting rule that was started as a way of protecting the sporting event, but it seems in some circumstances that there is no bigger or better place to fight for rights and to make a statement than the Olympics.
Here are some ways that athletes, companies, and spectators protested during the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Who: Women’s gymnastics team
What Happened: It’s not common to see female gymnasts competing in full-body unitards during competition, because it’s not the standard attire. Unlike male gymnasts who wear singlets (similar to leotards for women) with shorts or long pants, women wear bikini-cut leotards. Why’s that? No one really knows. That’s why at this year’s Olympics, the women of the German gymnastics team decided to wear full-body leotards. When asked why, they said that women shouldn’t feel uncomfortable in the clothes they compete in. They should have a choice and feel comfortable in their own skin.
Who: Americans Raven Saunders and Race Imboden
What Happened: After winning an Olympic silver medal in the shot-put event, American Raven Saunders did what the International Olympic Committee asked athletes not to do: protest at the games. Remember Rule 50? But Saunders raised her arm over her head and crossed them during the medals ceremony. When asked what the meaning was behind the gesture, Saunders said, “It’s the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.” Later, when American fencer Race Imboden accepted his bronze medal, a noticeable letter “X” was drawn on his hand.
Who: The people of Japan
What Happened: Before the Olympic Games even began, the people of Japan made their voices clear that a global event and a pandemic just don’t mix. Protesters took to the streets and continued to express their sentiments about the event even while the Opening Ceremonies were taking place inside Olympic Stadium.
Who: Japanese companies who sponsor the Olympic Games
What Happened: Toyota, a major sponsor of the Tokyo Olympics, decided not to air any Olympic-related ads during the Olympics and its president, Akio Toyoda, did not attend the games. Why? To stand with the majority of the Japanese people, who opposed the games.
Who: Ten Nigerian athletes
What Happened: Ten Nigerian athletes were disqualified from the Olympics because they didn’t take the adequate amount of drug tests within a period of time before the Olympics. The athletes held up signs in protest at the Olympic village, sharing their frustration about their removal from the games when it was their country and organizers who were responsible for their drug testing schedule and not them. Why should they be punished for something that they didn’t know was their responsibility?
Who: Women’s soccer players
What Happened: The United States, Sweden, and several other country’s women’s soccer teams took a knee at the beginning of their matches to protest racism and discrimination.