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Black Lives Matter — but not at the Olympics

The international Games promote fair play and a level playing field for all, but only within the context of sports.

Earlier this month, the International Olympic Committee voted to uphold a rule that prohibits any kind of “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” in Olympic venues and areas.PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images

For nearly a century, the official motto of the Olympics has been Citius, Altius, Fortius, which is Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” Perhaps it should be “Shut up and play.”

That’s the prevailing attitude for the Games postponed for a year by the COVID-19 pandemic now scheduled to begin in Tokyo on July 23. Earlier this month, the International Olympic Committee voted to uphold a rule that prohibits any kind of “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” in Olympic venues and areas.

This is the IOC’s pointed, small-minded response to a worldwide movement energized last year after a white Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, one that continues with still more police killings. By banning athletes from wearing anything that says Black Lives Matter — or presumably “Stop Asian Hate” or “Protect Trans Lives” — they want to inoculate the Games from reality. They are demanding that Olympians check their consciences at the door, as if white supremacy, systemic racism, and police violence also will pause for those two weeks during the Olympics.

This means athletes cannot raise a fist during the national anthem as American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos did on the winners’ podium at the Mexico City Games in 1968. They cannot take a knee like NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other athletes during the pre-game anthem in 2016. They cannot don Black Lives Matters T-shirts as players in the four major sports in the United States did last season.


In this Oct. 16, 1968 photo, US athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos raise their gloved fists after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze for the 200 meter run at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. Athletes who make political or social justice protest at the Tokyo Olympics were promised legal support Thursday April 22, 2021, by a global union and an activist group in Germany. The pledges came one day after the International Olympic Committee confirmed its long-standing ban on “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” on the field of play, medal podiums, or official ceremonies.Associated Press

Those who violate the rule will face consequences, although the IOC hasn’t said what that will entail. Smith and Carlos were not stripped of the medals they won in the 200 meters, but they were expelled from the Olympic Village for what Avery Brundage, then-IOC chairman, called “a nasty demonstration against the American flag by Negroes.”


That “nasty demonstration” was a protest for human rights and racial justice. And because circumstances remain as dire today as they were in 1968, Olympic athletes should be allowed to use their platform to raise awareness of the inequities inflicted on Black people and other communities of color.

This is what tennis champion Naomi Osaka did at last year’s US Open. She wore seven masks for her seven US Open matches, each bearing a different name of a Black person — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, and Tamir Rice — killed by police or men self-deputized by their whiteness.

Naomi Osaka of Japan wears face masks bearing the names of Black victims of police violence and racial profiling during the 2020 US Open tennis tournament in New York.Frank Franklinn II, Seth Wenig/Associated Press

When a reporter asked Osaka what message she wanted to send, she said, “I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”

The IOC wants to curtail that conversation, and claims that’s also the case for a majority of its Olympians. In a survey of more than 3,500 athletes over the past year, IOC officials say 70 percent said it was “not appropriate to demonstrate or express their views” during events or at the opening or closing ceremonies. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the survey began during the heat of protests after Floyd’s murder.

There is never an inappropriate time to proclaim lives matter, unless someone believes that they don’t.

“I think that protest is not comfortable ever,” soccer star Megan Rapinoe, one of the first white athletes to take a knee, said during a CNN interview in 2019. “It’s going to force people to look inward and question everything they thought that they knew.”


Of course, that’s really the issue. People don’t want to question what they believe. It doesn’t matter how people protest racial injustice; the disagreement comes from them protesting at all. To ignore racism is to deny its existence, and how it relentlessly destroys lives. When Kaepernick first took a knee to protest police violence, Daunte Wright was 15. Ma’Khia Bryant was 11. Adam Toledo was 8.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, middle, kneels for the first time during the national anthem before the team's NFL preseason football game against the San Diego Chargers, in San Diego, Sept. 1, 2016. Chris Carlson/Associated Press

All were shot and killed by police officers in the past month. No IOC rule should punish athletes from raising up their names or decrying the entrenched racist systems that operate with impunity, rarely face accountability, and deny justice.

Hailing the “neutrality of sport,” the Olympics purport to stand for ”fair play, inclusion and equality.” So, too, do athletes who will feel compelled to protest in Tokyo. The problem isn’t the participants; it’s the silence imposed on them. The IOC should recognize that there can be no level playing field within the Games when such complicity allows its absence to persist outside the lines.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.