Team USA’s Council on Racial and Social Justice is publicly asking for a change to a longstanding and controversial International Olympic Committee rule that prohibits demonstrations and protests at the Games. The American athlete-led council, formed this past summer with the support of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, is requesting changes to allow its athletes to peacefully protest without sanctions during the Olympic and Paralympic Games, saying the right to demonstrate against racial and social injustice is a matter of human rights rather than politics.
“The Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice provided its recommendation to the USOPC, NGBs, IOC and IPC in an effort to show the power and duty athletes have to build a more inclusive world through sport,” Moushaumi Robinson, a 2004 Olympic track-and-field gold medalist and chair of the Council, said in a press release. “The Council believes the diversity of Team USA athletes is our strength, and that this recommendation can be a catalyst for change.”
In a show of support, USOPC said in a news release that it will not sanction any Team USA athletes “for respectfully demonstrating in support of racial and social justice for all human beings.”
USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland said in a statement, “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.”
However, the IOC and International Paralympic Committee (IPC) still have the capacity to enforce their own rules at next summer’s delayed 2020 Tokyo Games. The IOC released a statement saying it would take the council’s recommendations into consideration, “among the other feedback it has received.”
Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter currently reads, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” The Paralympics’ have a similar rule in Section 2.2 of the Games’ handbook. The IOC has long promoted itself as an apolitical entity focused on unity, bringing together athletes from all over the world, and has frowned on integrating politics—or religious or ethnic demonstrations—into the Games. After long arguing that Rule 50 is designed to protect the neutrality of the Olympic movement, the IOC requested input on the topic of demonstrations earlier this year.
The USOPC is the most powerful national Olympic committee to put pressure on the IOC about the rule. The organization started to signal a shift in stance on the policy, which it had long enforced, last year when it formally reprimanded but did not punish a pair of U.S. athletes who protested on the podium—one kneeling and the other raising a fist—during the Pan American Games last summer. In January, the IOC clarified that both acts were among the prohibited forms of protest.
While sources within the Olympic movement express skepticism about substantive change, the IOC Athletes Commission is engaging in an ongoing review of the rule and expects to share an update in 2021.
The USOPC Athletes’ Advisory Council called on the IOC to abolish Rule 50 in June, when the racial and social justice council was created. The changes called for on Thursday, International Human Rights Day, mirror those asked for by many within the U.S. Olympic ranks, including Los Angeles Olympic Committee Chairman Casey Wasserman.
In a June 19 letter to the head of the IOC, Wasserman asked that anti-racism advocacy at the Games be allowed. L.A. will host the 2028 Summer Games. “Racism against the Black community has gone on far too long without systemic support and tangible actions from the global sport community,” Wasserman said.
All are calling for the same thing: the IOC and IPC to update guidelines and allow for peaceful actions that advocate for human rights and racial and social justice.
-With assistance from Eben Novy-Williams.