If asked to think about the Olympics, one image proves most enduring. Three men stand on the podium, two of them shoe-less, wearing a black glove on one hand raised in salute. The iconic image of African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 200m medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics has transcended sport alone, but rather continues to serve as an empowering salute to black power and the human rights movement at large. Accompanied by Australian runner and silver medallist Peter Norman, who stood in solidarity with the men, it was a moment where the world saw not only what it meant to be an advocate and a leader, but what it meant to be an ally.
It’s hard to imagine then, that under current Olympic ban on podium protests, such an image wouldn’t exist. The ruling dictates a ban on “gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling.” But at a time where protests have come to engulf the world, such demands seem outdated at best. In a year following the Black Lives Matter protests, the world has watched as celebrities and athletes alike take to their various social platforms to show solidarity with protesters. From all corners of the globe, athletes have shared their own stories of racial bias or prejudice, and spoken out about the need to continue the fight. And when it comes to raising awareness and having your voice heard, there’s no bigger platform than the Olympics - it’s the biggest international sporting event.
Speaking out about the need for protests to be allowed, Team GB sprinter Dina Asher-Smith told The Guardian that she believes it would be a mistake for the Games to sanction any athlete protesting against racism at Tokyo 2020. “Protesting and expressing yourself is a fundamental human right,” said Asher-Smith. “If you were to penalise someone for standing up against racial inequality how on earth would that go? How on earth are you going to enforce that?”
She added, “When people feel strongly about something, particularly when it’s something that’s so close to your heart - and as a black woman you think about racism - I just think you can’t police people’s voice on that. That’s an incredibly difficult thing to do.”
Perhaps knowing the controversy such a stance will stir up, the International Olympic Committee has introduced recent changes to Article 50, which now permits athletes to quietly protest on the field of play. However, doing so on the podium is still not allowed and carries with it a threat of unspecified sanctions. As Asher-Smith questions, “If you were to penalise someone, or revoke a medal, how would that go optically?”
To look at the recent racism that was subjected to England’s best footballers following the loss of the Euro championships is to see that sport is not divorced from politics or social change. Athletes themselves are more than the sport they simply participate in; these are people with backgrounds, stories, who have a voice. As Marcus Rashford has shown, it’s powerful to speak out. It’s time athletes were given the platform to do so.
See more of our Olympic coverage below.