Why you might not see any athletes protest at this summer’s Olympics

There will be no athletes taking a knee on the field at this year’s Olympics in Tokyo. In fact, there won’t be any visible athlete protests if the International Olympic Committee gets its wish.

The IOC on Thursday became the latest athletic organization to crack down on political protests by its athletes, publishing new rules governing when and how competitors can express political opinions.

According to the new rules, athletes are barred from conducting protests or demonstrations on the field of play, in the Olympic Village, during medal ceremonies, or during the opening or closing ceremonies of the games. The rule gives several examples of prohibited protest, including messages on armbands or signs, hand gestures with political meaning, kneeling, or refusal to follow ceremony protocol. Athletes will be allowed to express political opinions in media gatherings, press conferences, and mixed-zone interviews, and on social media.

That runs counter to a limited, but storied, history of protest at the biannual sporting event; the famous 1968 podium protest when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists on the medal stand to protest racism in America would be prohibited under these rules.

IOC officials stressed Thursday that limiting political speech is key to maintaining harmony between athletes and nations at the games.

“It is important, on both a personal and a global level, that we keep the venues, the Olympic Village and the podium neutral and free from any form of political, religious or ethnic demonstrations,” said the IOC Athletes’ Commission in an introduction accompanying the rules. “If we do not, the life’s work of the athletes around us could be tarnished, and the world would quickly no longer be able to look at us competing and living respectfully together, as conflicts drive a wedge between individuals, groups and nations.”

Black Power Salute At Olympic Games
American track and field athletes Tommie Smith (C) and John Carlos (R), first- and third-place winners in the 200-meter race, protest with the Black Power salute as they stand on the winners’ podium at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, October 19, 1968.
John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

While restricting athlete protest may produce a sufficiently sterilized sporting environment for Olympic sponsors and broadcasters, it may violate the original spirit of the games.

The founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, emphasized that games were meant to bring humanity together not only to celebrate athletic excellence, but also to strive for a better world. “To spread these principles is to build up a strong and more valiant and, above all, more scrupulous and more generous humanity,” he’s quoted as saying in the Olympian, published in 1984.

Athletes could still choose to defy the rules but would risk facing three layers of disciplinary action — from the IOC, their home nation’s Olympic Committee, and their sport’s international governing body.

In a statement last week, Athlete Global blasted the IOC’s focus on limiting free expression. “Let’s be clear, the Olympic Movement has already politicized sport,” reads the statement, citing promotion of the unified North and South Korea at the Winter Games in 2018, and the involvement of heads of state as de facto heads of national Olympic committees. “We should embrace [athletes’] diverse opinions. Silencing athletes should never be tolerated and to threaten them with removal from the Olympic Games is another sign of the imbalance between sport leaders and athletes.”

The IOC joins a long string of sports organizations taking a hard line on athlete protest

The IOC is far from the only sports organization to prioritize harmony — and its bottom line — over the athletes’ attempts to “strive for a better world.”

The US Olympic Committee punished two athletes for participating in podium protests at the Pan Am Games last August. Hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised a fist and fencer Race Imboden took a knee during medal ceremonies, and both were subsequently put on probation by the USOC for 12 months, which will cover the Olympics this summer.

Athlete protest has had a resurgence in the 2010s — from NBA protests in 2014 that featured LeBron James and several other league stars wearing warmup shirts that read “I can’t breathe,” the last words of Eric Garner as he was strangled by New York Police officers, to perhaps most notably NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and several of his teammates taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence against black people in the US in 2016. His protest set off a high-profile clash with President Donald Trump, who last year said Kaepernick “should find a country that works better for him.” The former 49ers player has since been blackballed by the NFL and hasn’t taken a snap since 2016.

US Soccer restricted political protests in 2017 by its players after star Megan Rapinoe began kneeling during the national anthem in solidarity with Kaepernick the year before. “When I take a knee, I am facing the flag with my full body, staring straight into the heart of our country’s ultimate symbol of freedom — because I believe it is my responsibility, just as it is yours, to ensure that freedom is afforded to everyone in this country,” she wrote at the time of her protest in an op-ed for the Players’ Tribune. (The restrictions haven’t stopped Rapinoe or others on the US Women’s National Team from expressing themselves politically in other ways.)

More recently, the NBA was criticized for cracking down on player and coach support for protesters in Hong Kong to preserve its access to the Chinese market. Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted, “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The tweet set off a firestorm that included denunciation from the Chinese Consulate in Houston, and an apology from the NBA league office; the Rockets were reportedly at one point considering firing him.

While the IOC may well end up with the protest-free Summer Games it’s hoping for, burying political speech on behalf of the world’s marginalized populations most likely won’t do anything to create a better world.