Sports

The U.S. Olympic Committee Will No Longer Punish American Athletes for Protesting

People tend to associate positive imagery with the Olympics. They think of pageantry and national pride. That said, some athletes have used the Olympics’ large platform to protest or make a larger political point. While this can certainly make a positive impact, it’s actually been against the rules for athletes to do so. 

The U.S. Olympic Committee has grown with the times, however. Recently, it softened its stance on this rule. Let’s look at the Olympics’ history of protesting, the specific rule against it, and what changes have been made.

A history of U.S. athletes demonstrating at the Olympics

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter run at the 1968 Olympic Games
Tommie Smith and John Carlos, medalists in the 200-meter run at the 1968 Olympics | Bettmann/Contributor

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Several U.S. athletes have used the Olympics to make a political point. The most famous case came at the 1968 Olympics. Amidst the Civil Rights era, as black people fought for equality in the U.S., Tommie Smith and John Carlos took a stand. At the Mexico City Games, the duo took to the platform and raised their gloved fists in solidarity. For their trouble, the two were sent home by the U.S. Olympic Committee. 

This wasn’t the only instance of black athletes using the international athletic stage to demonstrate. According to the Association of Black Women Historians, high jumper Rose Robinson refused to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner at the 1959 Pan Am Games. The U.S. later imprisoned her for tax evasion. Robinson went on a hunger strike. Sadly, she never returned to athletic competition again. 

What is Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter? 

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The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has a set of by-laws dictating how the Olympics are governed. These rules ensure the event is fair and orderly. According to Olympic.org, the second section of the charter’s Rule 50 states, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

This has often not been a major issue, as IOC looks to the home countries to “police” (for lack of a better term) their own athletes when this rule is violated. The U.S. Olympic Committee has been a partner to the IOC in this during previous Olympics. That’s changing. 

Why the U.S. Olympic Committee is refusing to punish its athletes

According to AP, the U.S. is now listening to its own athletes. They’ve told the IOC that they’ll no longer punish them for any kind of “acceptable demonstration” at the Olympic Games. CEO Sarah Hirshland explained the decision: “When you sit in my seat, you have to make decisions that you think are on the right side of history … And I believe we’re on the right side of history.” Hirshland’s willingness to take a stance is admirable. But will the IOC agree? 

What does this mean for the Olympic Games? Well, for fans of free expression and freedom of thought, it’s great news. The U.S. is allowing its athletes to express themselves openly without fear of punishment or reprisal. It remains to be seen how the IOC will adapt in the light of this news, but early signs are encouraging. AP reported the IOC is conducting a survey of athletes across the world for their thoughts on a possible change to the rule. 

The U.S. Olympic Committee’s position is a reflection of the current state of the world. More athletes than ever are using their platforms and voices to protest. Rather than lag behind the times, the U.S. realized they need to modernize its approach.