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Tommie Smith and John Carlos sculpture at San Jose State University. [View Image] Tommie Smith and John Carlos sculpture at San Jose State University. During their medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Smith and Carlos each raised a gloved fist during the playing of the U.S. national anthem, one of the most famous acts of protest in the history of modern sports. (Photo credit: David Schmitz/San José State University)

‘A new era of athlete activism’: The Olympics are underway. So are the protests.

A VCU expert discusses the rise in demonstrations among athletes, and explains the need to “move away from reducing athletes to their athletic identity and view them as humans first.”

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Entering the Tokyo Summer Olympics, the International Olympic Committee slightly relaxed its Rule 50, which for years had prohibited “political, religious or racial propaganda,” and issued new guidance allowing athletes more freedom to express their views on the field of play before competition as long as they are not disruptive. Such demonstrations already have taken place in the first week of the games, and it is likely more will follow.

Yet as the Tokyo Games approach the halfway mark, a larger debate is unfolding — between the IOC and athletes, sports organizations, human rights and social justice experts calling on the committee to do more than amend its rules regarding athlete activism. On July 22, over 150 signatories, including current and former Olympic athletes, signed an open letter calling on the IOC to allow protests at the medal podium. That same day, the highest-ranking American on the International Olympic Committee cautioned athletes not to do so.

Yannick Kluch, Ph.D. is an assistant professor and director of outreach and inclusive excellence at the Center for Sport Leadership, part of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business, and a leading expert in diversity and inclusion in global sport who has worked with the NCAA, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, USA Diving and the Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association. He signed the open letter to the IOC and spoke with VCU News in the early days of the Tokyo Games about athlete activism at the Olympics.  

The International Olympic Committee slightly relaxed “Rule 50,” which gives athletes some room to allow for demonstrations. We’ve already seen such demonstrations take place in Tokyo. Will we see more?

Yes! I have no doubt we will be seeing more activism surrounding the Tokyo Games. This is not just due to the more relaxed guidelines for Rule 50 but also because we are in a new era of athlete activism. Nowadays, athletes are aware of the power they hold, and they are less hesitant to use their platforms for social justice advocacy. One of the talking points we often hear when athletes, especially athletes of color, speak up on social issues is that they should just “shut up and dribble.” We live in a time when athletes do not accept that response anymore — and rightfully reject that dehumanizing perspective.

We need to move away from reducing athletes to their athletic identity and view them as humans first. Athletes, especially those from minoritized or marginalized communities, have a lot of social capital. They are leaders in their respective communities, and they should be utilizing the platform that they have to advocate for a more just, inclusive world. And just looking at the past two weeks, we have already seen athletes utilize that platform during the Tokyo Games. Entire teams have taken a knee to call attention to racial justice. A German athlete has worn a rainbow arm band during a hockey match in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community. A Costa Rican gymnast incorporated a Black Lives Matter tribute into her routine. I think we will see more of these acts, including in some of the areas that the IOC and IPC still don’t allow protests in, such as the Olympic and Paralympic podium.

There is precedent for activism at the Olympics and in sports in general — from Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City in 1968 to Colin Kaepernick in 2016. For these games, a confluence of factors are contributing to this moment. What are they?

I think it is a combination of social movements happening at this moment in time and the increased social consciousness of athletes as a result of those movements.

Ten years ago, we rarely saw high-profile athletes speak out on matters of racial and social justice. But the recent (re)emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the horrific murders of Black and Brown people that have given new momentum to the movement, have led many athletes to call attention to the systemic injustices that disadvantage minoritized populations. The Olympic and Paralympic Games provide arguably one of the biggest platforms for athletes to call attention to social injustice, and I am confident athletes will utilize their platform during the games to call attention to matters of racial and social justice — whether their protests and demonstrations are in line with the Rule 50 guidelines or not.

Sport doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In fact, in my work I often look at how societal injustices manifest in the institution of sport (and how sport reinforces such injustices) as well as how sport has served as an arena for struggles for social justice. Athletes such as Tommie Smith, Dr. John Carlos, and Colin Kaepernick have served as powerful agents for change. They have also helped reduce the stigma attached to activism in sport, which is why nowadays we see athlete activists at all levels, from high school and college sport to professional sport and global sporting competitions like the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

“The Olympic and Paralympic Games provide arguably one of the biggest platforms for athletes to call attention to social injustice, and I am confident athletes will utilize their platform during the games to call attention to matters of racial and social justice — whether their protests and demonstrations are in line with the Rule 50 guidelines or not.”Yannick Kluch

The IOC says it is keeping sports neutral. In a story in USA Today on July 22, you said that is a fallacy. Why do you say that?

Because sport was never neutral in the first place. Sport scholars have long argued that sport is a microcosm of society, which means that the social ills that plague society — from white supremacy and systemic racism to gender inequity and homophobia — have also made it into every fabric of sport culture both in the US and globally.

Whenever someone is trying to argue that sport is neutral, I ask the following: If sport is neutral, then how come two-thirds of the IOC executive board and IOC committee members are men? If sport is neutral, then how come less than 5% of media coverage on ESPN is dedicated to women’s sports? If sport is neutral, how come women made up no more than 10% of participants in the Olympics until 1952 and weren’t allowed to compete in every sport until as late as 2012? If sport is neutral, how come only 160 out of the 11,000 athletes competing at the Tokyo Games are openly LGBTQ+? If sport is neutral, how come this year’s games are the first where openly transgender athletes are competing even though the IOC has had a transgender inclusion policy in place since 2003? And if sport is neutral, how come conversations about athlete protest almost exclusively focus on Rule 50 and rarely mention IPC Section 2.2, the counterpart policy for the Paralympic Games?

I am sharing this information because it shows that sport is not neutral — there are systemic barriers in place that make it harder for some individuals, particularly those from minoritized and historically excluded groups, to access sport, participate in sport, and/or receive visibility in sport. One of my favorite sentences from the open letter to the IOC and IPC we published this past week is that “neutrality is never neutral.” Unless you are actively working against social justice, and unless you are actively working towards removing the systemic barriers to diversity, equity and inclusion, you are supporting the status quo and reinforcing those barriers and injustices.

On a related note, the very idea to stay neutral is rooted in privilege. In the recommendation on Rule 50/IPC Section 2.2 I worked on with the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice, we said that “the ability to stay neutral in times of oppression is an expression of privilege that is granted only to those in whose image the Games were created.” For athletes from minoritized communities, staying neutral is not an option because their very existence in the Olympic and Paralympic spaces have been so heavily politicized.

It’s possible protests at the games could lead to sanctions to individual athletes. You have advised the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s athlete-led council on racial and social justice. The USOPC last year said it would not sanction athletes for social and racial justice demonstrations, and it did not during U.S. trials., but it could find itself in a tough position in the coming weeks, trying to strike a balance between being part of the governing coalition that helps make the Olympics happen and representing U.S. athletes. What advice do you have for the USOPC?

From my work with the USOPC, it is clear that the USOPC as an organization is changing — largely thanks to the great work the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice, and especially the athlete leaders on the council, has been doing. The Olympic and Paralympic Games are governed by the IOC and IPC, respectively, so the USOPC has no oversight over sanctions imposed by those bodies. If athletes should be sanctioned for protesting during the games, my hope is that the USOPC will advocate on behalf of the athlete — this can include not imposing sanctions even though the IOC/IPC asks them to do so. I think these games will set important precedence when it comes to activism, and I hope the USOPC and other national governing bodies/Olympic and Paralympic committees will increase pressure on the IOC and IPC not to sanction athletes demonstrating in support of human rights and racial and social justice.

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