Olympic knee ban should stay, say many athletes
Competitors fear numerous other protests on podiums Punished hammer thrower claims rule will be ignored
Many athletes want the ban on taking a knee at next year’s Tokyo Olympics retained, because they fear that lifting it would open the door for other forms of protest, according to the woman leading the consultation over whether to overturn the controversial rule.
But one athlete, who was punished last year for a podium protest at the Pan American Games, has told The Daily Telegraph that individuals will continue to make a stand regardless.
The Athletics Association, a new independent body for track and field athletes, last week pledged to lead the fight against the International Olympic Committee’s rule 50, which prohibits competitors from taking a knee in solidarity with the anti-racism movement.
Fifa, the Football Association and America’s National Football League are among major sports organisations to remove sanctions for peaceful anti-racism protests in recent months. But the IOC has instructed its Athletes’ Commission to consult competitors before deciding whether to lift its own ban.
Kirsty Coventry, who won two Olympic swimming gold medals for Zimbabwe and is now leading the global consultation as chairman of the Athletes’ Commission, says a decision will be made by the end of the year, but all options remain.
“The thing that I’m worried about is looking at a podium and you have someone who’s campaigning for Black Lives Matter, someone campaigning for white supremacy and someone campaigning for something else,” she said. “That would not be OK. It would look awful. It’s supposed to be your Olympic moment when you’ve won a medal. What if we have three athletes all wanting to stand up and have three different protests or fight for three different things? Even the most vocal athletes have said that’s not what they want.
“Let’s say this rule gets changed, we allow for something and we have three different [protests]. What do we then do? Who allows what? Who makes that decision? What does it look like? No one’s really wanted to answer that. We can’t just change the rule to this, because if we do then it changes the rule for this, this and this.”
Asked if a significant number of athletes so far consulted were in favour of rule 50 remaining, and thus the ban on taking a knee staying intact, Coventry said: “Yes.”
While declining to give her own opinion for fear of jeopardising the neutrality of her position, she also said the Athletes’ Commission could implement some other form of group protest away from the podium.
“If we’re saying the only place [athletes] can gain attention is the podium and field of play, then how does that make all the athletes that don’t get on the podium feel?” she said. “If we’re trying to show we’re in solidarity and we all feel this or that is important, maybe it’s not about the podium or field of play. Maybe it’s other spaces or it’s a specific moment where we stand in solidarity. All of those kinds of ideas are being spoken about.”
Gwen Berry, the American hammer thrower, was placed on oneyear probation by the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee after raising a fist – echoing the actions of American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics – when she won gold at the Pan American Games last year.
Despite losing sponsorship as a result, she told she believed protests would continue regardless of the rules or consequences. “I do not believe the IOC will change its guidelines,” she said. “It is hoping this whole thing dies down – that it’s just a trend and people will have moved on to something else by next year.
“But the athletes are going to do what they want at the Olympics. It doesn’t matter if protests are banned or not. The power is with the athletes and they will decide what to do. This isn’t like basketball or football – Olympic athletes only get the chance once every four years to compete on this stage, so if they are going to make their voice heard it has to be there.”
‘The IOC is hoping this whole thing dies down – that it is just a trend’
Making a stand: Gwen Berry was put on a one-year probation after raising her fist on the Pan American Games podium after winning gold in the hammer last year