Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Gwen Berry, More Athletes Ask IOC to Change Protest Policy

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured Columnist IVJuly 22, 2021

COLORADO SPRINGS, CO - NOVEMBER 01: Olympic track and field legend Tommie Smith, right, speaks as he and John Carlos, left, are inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame on November 1, 2019 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images for USOPC)
Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images for USOPC

Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Gwen Berry were part of a group of athletes, educators, activists and organizations who penned a letter to the International Olympic Committee asking it to forgo punishments for athletes who demonstrate at the Tokyo Olympics.

The IOC partially rolled back Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, allowing participants to raise their fist or take a knee as long as it happened before an event begins.

Because those who demonstrate on the medal stand are still subject to punishment, the writers of Thursday's letter remained critical of the IOC.

"While we appreciate the strides the IOC/IPC made in promoting athlete expression, we do not believe the changes made reflect a commitment to freedom of expression as a fundamental human right nor to racial and social justice in global sport," the letter said.

Prior to amending their stance, Olympic officials defended Rule 50 by saying sporting events should be neutral and "must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference."

The letter writers countered that "neutrality is never neutral." In addition, they argued sporting events and the organizations that run them are inevitably affected by wider issues such as structural inequality.

"Staying neutral means staying silent, and staying silent means supporting ongoing injustice," the letter said.

Smith and Carlos delivered perhaps the most indelible image in Olympics history when they raised their fists on the podium after medaling in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Summer Games.

Berry competed in the U.S. Olympic trials ahead of the Games and finished third in the hammer throw. While standing on the podium with her bronze medal, she turned away from the American flag as "The Star-Spangled Banner" played.

"If you know your history, you'd know the full song of the national anthem," she said of her aversion to the song. "The third verse speaks about slaves and our blood being slang and pilchered all over the floor. It's disrespectful and it does not speak for Black Americans."

Berry was also one of two athletes placed on probation by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee after raising her fist on the medal stand during the 2019 Pan American Games.

In March, the USOPC changed its policy to allow athletes to peacefully protest on the podium and during the national anthem, saying it won't punish athletes who demonstrate. However, in its open letter to the athletes, the organization noted that it "can’t control the actions others may take in response," referring to any possible IOC sanctions around Rule 50.