People wearing face masks walk and ride past an Olympics decoration installed along a street in Tokyo.(AP)
People wearing face masks walk and ride past an Olympics decoration installed along a street in Tokyo.(AP)

Right to protest rule could see Olympics face unique challenge

  • Rule 50 is one of the 61 rules in the Olympic Charter, and specifically it is rule 50.2 which may turn up frequently in 2021, its pot constantly on stir and simmer. The rule says: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
By Sharda Ugra
PUBLISHED ON JAN 29, 2021 08:14 AM IST

All through 2021 what are the words we will hear most around sport outside its field of play? Apart from say, “positive”, “negative”, “quarantine” and “biobubble”?

Dock this one: “Rule 50”.

Rule 50 is one of the 61 rules in the Olympic Charter, and specifically it is rule 50.2 which may turn up frequently in 2021, its pot constantly on stir and simmer. The rule says: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

In January 2020, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) sent out an amendment to Rule 50. This amendment specified the difference between “expressing views” and “protests and demonstrations”. It also listed what constituted a protest, while saying theirs was a “non-exhaustive” count. One of those read: “gestures of a political nature like a hand gesture or kneeling.”

Well, well, kaboom.

In 2020, the “hand gesture” aka raised fist and “kneeling” also called “taking a knee” became as visible across sport as kissing trophies and chest bumps. Those gestures marked the clearest expression of athletic activism across world sport. Once the biggest names in the US like basketball star LeBron James and tennis champion Serena Williams, among others, spoke out in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, the issue escalated around the globe. Athletes, coaches and media called out endemic racism in their sport and their societies.

The emotional testimonies of former players like Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent shook cricket through the English summer. Tennis star Naomi Osaka wore seven face masks with the names of the victims of US police violence on her way to the US Open title. NBA players wore BLM T-shirts during the playoffs, where courtsides were painted and banners hung carrying anti-racism messages. Football teams took a knee when the Premier League season resumed, with some goal celebrations of both bent knee and raised fist.

In this environment, the Rule 50 amendment appears out of sync, out of step and out of date. The amendment came after protests by two US athletes during medal ceremonies at the 2019 Pan American Games in Peru. As the US national anthem played in Lima, fencer Race Imboden knelt on the medal podium and hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised her fist, both against racism and injustice. The athletes were put on a 12-month probation by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC), essentially a warning of severe punishment in case of a second similar “offence”.


The IOC’s Jan 2020 amendment had intended to sanitise the Tokyo Olympics. Except, 12 months later, the situation on the ground has sent Rule 50.2 into a dizzy spin. In July, the IOC’s Athlete’s Commission (AC) went into meetings via conference calls, seeking feedback about Rule 50, through a survey sent to athletes via their national Olympic athletes’ commissions. The AC wanted to find the balance between freedom of expression and respect for athletes’ desire to mark their own moment on the field or podium. As a message from AC vice chair, Slovenian shooter Danka Bartekova, explained, the consultations were to discover “How can we give athletes a platform during the Games to be vocal about what’s important to them?”

The points of contention arise over the playing field and podium ceremonies. Athletes can say what they please on social media, in Games press conferences, mixed zone interviews in venues and the Olympic village. The survey seeking “fresh ideas” highlighted the urgency of clarifying what should be allowed where and in what form across Olympic sport.

Several national Olympic bodies responded along with other stakeholders. The Australian Athletes Commission survey in particular noted a change in views based on the age of the athletes objecting to protest at the Olympics. While overall 40% believed there was no place for protest at the Games, among younger athletes, those from the 2010s onwards, that figure fell to 19%.

Irish athletes believed the rule should be “reformed” rather than abolished. There appears to be no word from the Indian Olympic Association Athletes Commission, but given the deep dependence of Indian Olympic sport on government funding and benevolence, it is hardly a surprise. The IOC AC is expected to present its findings and recommendations to the Executive Board in March.

Worldwide, the tension around Rule 50 is being cranked up. The most powerful of the national Olympic associations—from the United States—picked December 10, Human Rights Day, to announce a 360 turnaround from its actions against Imboden and Berry. The USOPC stated that it would not sanction US athletes for “respectfully demonstrating in support of racial and social justice”. It was their response to their athletes’-led Team USA Council for Racial and Social Justice asking for Rule 50 to be “reconsidered”.

A week prior, World Athletics (WA) had named Tommie Smith, John Carlos and the late Peter Norman, Mexico City 200m medallists, as winners of their President’s Award. Smith and Carlos had put their gloved fists and the Black Power salute on the global centrestage with Norman, who wore an “Olympic Project for Human Rights” badge in support. The President’s award was given to the trio “whose bravery, dignity and morality continue to inspire athletes from all sport”.

This is a long way from what happened to the athletes when they had protested during the 1968 Games; all three were ostracized back then and their sporting careers were scuttled for good.

When asked about the award three days later, IOC president Thomas Bach, who had earlier said that the Olympics should “not be a marketplace for demonstrations” did not directly comment.

He only cited WA rulings which prohibited “political and religious marketing”. Only to have WA respond by saying they “do not believe gestures against racism can be defined as religious or political marketing”. Athletics happens to be one of the two biggest disciplines at the Olympics, swimming the other.

In a year where the Olympics itself are on the line due to the pandemic, Rule 50.2 has gone from hot potato to hot button. It is unlike any other crisis—political, financial, logistical—the Olympics have faced in the past. The usual homilies—the Olympic Family bigger than the United Nations, no politics in sport, freedom from government interference, autonomy—do not apply. This is about the Olympics’ richest core, its athletes. Among them, there could be a growing number who want to be seen as more than just streamlined specimens of sporting excellence. They would want to be heard and seen about the wider causes of social justice that matter to them.

At the moment, it’s them versus Rule 50. It is like Smith and Carlos’s salute has returned after fifty years, this time before the Games have even begun.

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