The most famous act of athlete activism occurred on an Olympic podium, when gold-medal-winning sprinter Tommie Smith thrust his black-gloved hand into the sky. That moment in Mexico City in 1968 earned a one-way ticket home for Smith and John Carlos, the bronze-medal winner who matched Smith’s demonstration with his own.
It also earned the two American men a lifetime journey that moved them from pariah to paragon, ostracism to acclaim, living symbols of athletes as activists.
It’s been more than five decades since Smith used his gilded, world-record-setting night to make his stand for human rights, yet for all that has changed across that time, the debate about athletes using their stage for protest rages on unabated.
As athletes from all corners of the globe proceed to Tokyo, packing their Olympic dreams and medal hopes for a Summer Games finally set to be staged a year later than originally planned, we pause to ask: To protest or not to protest, will that be the question?
“I would be astonished if there’s not significant athlete protests. The movement has gotten too big, athletes know their voices are powerful,” said Richard Lapchick, one of the nation’s foremost experts on athletes and activism, as well as the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. “I just see a platform that the athletes won’t want to miss out on using.”
If Smith were holding a metaphorical baton on that night in Mexico City, then 50-plus years later there are American athletes eager to take their turn in the relay for which he ran such an enduring and important opening leg.
“It’s mightily important to understand passing the baton without dropping it,” said Smith, 77, in a conversation with the Globe. “We work hard to pass that baton and we pass it with the freedom and strength and movement, and hopefully now it can move forward with the same sympathy and empathy that we hope was embedded in the need to pass that baton on.
“So the younger generation can understand that you have the freedom, you have the right, so understand that right and move with freedom. It has already been sacrificed for.”
It was his recent documentary, “With Drawn Arms,” that brought Smith to the phone, a film that shares in poignant detail the personal and professional price he paid for his actions. In speaking with artist Glenn Kaino, who along with Afshin Shahidi is a creator of the project available on various on-demand platforms, Smith walks viewers through his journey from those early days of ostracism to the later ones of acclaim, a road that puts him in position to understand perhaps better than anyone how athletes of today might be thinking and what they might be facing.
The International Olympic Committee prepared for the possibility of protests in Tokyo by updating Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, the longstanding policy that provides “for the protection of the neutrality of sport at the Olympic Games and the neutrality of the Games themselves” and states that, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
With its expanded Rule 50.2, released July 2, the IOC gave some concessions to athlete expression in consultation with the Athletes’ Commission. The document now says athletes will be able to “express their views, including on the field of play prior to the start of competition,” and in other places such as “when speaking to the media,” “during press conferences in the venue or in the Main Media Center,” “during interviews,” “at team meetings,” and “through social media challenges.”
Disallowed locations include “during official ceremonies (including Olympic medal ceremonies, opening and closing ceremonies), during competition on the field of play, [and] in the Olympic Village.”
The document also comes with a warning that gestures must “be consistent with the fundamental principles of Olympism; not targeted, directly or indirectly, against people, countries, organizations and/or their dignity; not disruptive for those who break these rules.”
For those who flout the rules, “the participant or team of participants . . . may be subject to the IOC’s disciplinary proceedings,” and “any sanction will be proportionate to the level of disruption and the degree to which the infraction is not compatible with the Olympic values.”
While the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee has come out in support of athlete protests and said it would not sanction individuals for such choices, the IOC is the ultimate arbiter at the Games.
“I do believe that some athletes will participate in ways that will jeopardize their future if they don’t do it in a way that corresponds to the needs of their societies,” Smith said. “There are ways to do things that won’t incur what Tommie Smith did in 1968. You’re not the first. You’re continuing. You’re carrying the baton. Carry it with pride.”
American athletes seem ready.
Look at bronze-medal-winning hammer thrower Gwen Berry, who made headlines at the US Track and Field trials when she turned away and covered her head with a T-shirt as the national anthem played. Or listen to American sprinter Noah Lyles, who, after mimicking Smith and Carlos’s action with a black glove of his own last year, wrote on his Instagram: “As athletes it’s hard to show that you love your country and also say that change is needed . . . This is my way of saying this country is great but it can be better.”
Therein lies the rub of the debate, which seems to center around whether these protests are a manifestation of patriotism or a repudiation of it.
For some, there is no better example of this nation’s foundational belief in freedom of speech than protesting during the anthem. For others, there is no appropriate time to use the anthem in a divisive way, believing it should be honored as a consistent theme of unity.
The Olympics aren’t likely to settle things, but more likely to keep the conversation going.
US soccer star Megan Rapinoe believes in speaking up.
“It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come, as a group, as athletes in this country,” she said during an Olympic media summit. “To see how empowered athletes are, not only that we feel comfortable and feel safe enough in this environment, and in our jobs supported by big federations to say those things and be very outward about them but just how much more responsibility I think we’ve taken on ourselves.”
Rapinoe was one of the first American athletes to follow NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s lead in taking a knee during the national anthem, a move that eventually became ubiquitous in sports, representing the Black Lives Matter movement, protests over deaths at police hands of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and many other issues of equality and justice for all. Now we watch to see how, or if, that movement seeps into the Olympics.
Across this past year, from a pandemic that broke our hearts to a social justice movement that opened them, the world as we knew it changed in drastic and inalterable ways. While the sports world was certainly affected by the former, it is the latter that remains central to its collective post-pandemic mission.
Now we head to Tokyo, to the biggest sporting stage of them all. What will we see?