Tommie Smith’s fist raised on the podium in Mexico City is still the symbol of peaceful protest against racism at the Olympic Games. More than 50 years after his iconic gesture at the 1968 Summer Games, the American athletes want him to find imitators on the same stage in Tokyo – but unlike the Olympic champion over 200 meters, they should not lose their sporting prospects or lose their sporting prospects to fear other punishments. Because the United States, itself guilty of the suffering of the African American Smith, has been changing course for months: athletes should be allowed to protest “respectfully” at the Olympics. Against racism, for social justice.
This recommendation from a working group of the Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is still nothing more than that: a recommendation. In response to increased pressure to amend Rule 50 by the IOC, which prohibits all demonstrations and political, religious or racist messages, IOC President Thomas Bach referred to the IOC Athletes Commission. It was supposed to find out “in dialogue with their colleagues and athletes from all over the world” how athletes “can express their support in a dignified way,” said Bach in June.
But the word of the United States carries weight in the Olympics more than that of any other nation. Not only do most of the medal winners often come from the United States, but most of the money comes from sponsors and the television station NBC from the United States into the accounts of the IOC. And it can hardly be clearer than what was written on Thursday – Human Rights Day.
“Muting athletes during the Games stands in stark contrast to the importance of recognizing participants first as people and then as athletes,” said the USOPC working group’s letter of recommendation to the IOC. “Banning athletes from freely expressing their point of view during the Games, especially those by historically underrepresented and inferior groups, helps dehumanize athletes and goes against key values of the Olympics and the Paralympics.”
The IOC’s Athletes’ Commission reacted immediately. Kirsty Coventry (37), spokeswoman for the IOC commission, told Twitter that the statement will be taken into account as well as other feedback that the commission has received from athletes from another 205 national Olympic committees – including Australia, Canada and Germany. The former swimmer, who is also Zimbabwe’s Minister of Sports, said the consultation process was ongoing. There will be a joint meeting between your commission and USOPC representatives on June 25th to discuss these issues.
But she also admitted that it was difficult to judge “opinions on hundreds of topics from different angles around the world” without “sharing the athletic community in 206 countries”. All feedback would be assessed by the commission before making recommendations to the IOC Executive Committee.
Since the death in May of the African American George Floyd, who died at the hands of a white police officer, athletes in the United States have positioned themselves more clearly than ever against racism and against police violence against blacks. In addition to stars from the big leagues like the NBA, the many smaller sports also want to be able to use their spotlights every four years. There were positive comments from Germany when the intentions of the United States first became known in the summer.
“The USOPC appreciates the voices from Team USA and believes in their right to stand up for social justice and against racism,” said USOPC Managing Director Sarah Hirshland now. Tommie Smith didn’t have that kind of cover in Mexico. Nevertheless, after his Olympic victory over 200 meters on the podium, he stretched his right fist in a black glove into the night sky – the symbol of the Black Power movement. He also wore no shoes and only black socks as a symbol of poverty. Bronze medalist and teammate John Carlos made the same gesture with his left arm. The photos went around the world and the action became a milestone in the civil rights movement.