It’s a hypothetical question to which we’ll never know the answer: If the pandemic hadn’t postponed the Olympics and some of the world’s best athletes competed as scheduled in Tokyo this past summer, what kind of Games would we have seen?
I’m guessing it would have been, like almost everything else in 2020, unprecedented in its tumultuousness. The opening ceremonies, after all, were scheduled to be held just a couple of months after the killing of George Floyd set off global protests against racial injustice. So the movements that commanded the discussion in places like Disney-based basketball bubbles and soccer fields around the planet — those same movements would have taken up residence in Tokyo’s athletes village, and almost certainly on its medal podiums.
And that likely would have posed a problem for those athletes in the eyes of the International Olympic Committee, which has long stood by its so-called Rule 50, which bans “any kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” and reserves the right to punish transgressors. While the NBA and WNBA led the way in encouraging athletes to express their views without fear of retribution, the IOC has no such track record of offering carte blanche for using the five-ringed stage as a platform for dissent.
It’s a problem that’s not going away. And while the IOC has at least acknowledged the need for discussion, engaging with athletes’ groups since June, the dialogue hasn’t stopped the calls to abolish Rule 50.
“Freedom of expression is a human right,” said Rob Koehler, the head of the Montreal-based athletes’ advocacy group Global Athlete. “The people who run sport think they can trump human rights laws, but they shouldn’t be able to.”
The prevailing counter-argument to shelving Rule 50, from the Olympic movement’s perspective, seems to be that athletes have plenty of opportunities to voice their opinions in press conferences and interviews. The podium and the playing field ought to be sacred spaces free from such statements. Last week, Dick Pound, the long-standing IOC member from Montreal, called the idea of taking a knee on the medal podium “inarticulate.”
“You’ll never know if you’re watching on TV or from the stands if it’s actually about racial discrimination or about fluoride in the water,” Pound told the Around the Rings website.
Rule 50 isn’t about silencing athletes, in other words, said Pound: “It just means you have to wait five minutes until the end of the ceremony and go to the press conference and say whatever you want.”
To which a majority of Canadian Olympians might have replied: We agree. At least, that was one of the headline-generating talking points from a survey of 104 Olympians and Olympic hopefuls released by the Canadian Olympic Committee on Monday. According to the survey, 79 per cent of respondents believe protests shouldn’t be allowed on the field of play.
“Athletes value non-interference for competition,” said Rosie MacLennan, the two-time Olympic trampoline gold medallist and vice-chair of the COC’s athletes commission. “When you train for four years for a 30-second performance, you don’t want that moment to be thwarted.”
As for kneeling on an Olympic medal podium — respondents were roughly split on whether or not it ought to be allowed.
“I think it shows that there’s a diverse array of opinions among athletes,” MacLennan said. “Athletes, while they want to have more freedoms, they also recognize that the Olympic Games is also unique and it’s different. And with that, you have to contemplate the consequences (of change).’”
One of the athletes commission’s suggestions to the COC, to wit, is for a designated space in Olympic villages where demonstration is permitted.
The survey may or may not be an accurate representation of the feelings of some of Canada’s best athletes. It was given to just 104 individuals — current and former Olympians, and would-be participants — and not all of them responded to all the questions. Only 56 per cent of survey takers answered the question about what should be done about Rule 50. Of those, about 33 per cent advocated for leaving it as is, while 29 per cent favoured abolishing it. Another 21 per cent checked the box marked, “I do not feel informed enough on the topic to provide my opinion.”
Which is why, of course, leaders and advocates largely steer the course of such discussions. Certainly there are influential voices in the global sports power structure who appear to be realizing that resisting such change is dangerous in itself — that the NFL and the NBA have softened their positions on kneeling for anthems, among other things, because there was no reasonable alternative to doing so. Last week, Sebastian Coe, the IOC member who’s head of track and field’s governing body, said he would support an athlete who knelt on a podium in protest, in part because it’s impossible to “separate sport from social and cultural issues.”
Said Coe: “I have been very clear — I have no problem with an athlete if they choose to take the knee on a podium, as long as it is done with respect and not in any way to damage the moment for the other two competitors.”
Make no mistake: That kind of support from power brokers is crucial. Koehler made the point that, while it’s one thing for the multimillionaires of the NBA to express themselves by taking a knee and staging a strike to protest the killing of Jacob Blake, it’s different for many Olympic athletes. While the NBAers are protected by both their vast wealth and their players’ union, most Olympians are neither wealthy nor unionized. Athletes who might be inclined to use an Olympic platform to express their views on important social issues are currently disinclined to do so out of a “real fear of retribution” from the athletic establishment that can make or break careers.
“The power imbalance is so big,” Koehler said. “Athletes are walking around in this era legitimately concerned that by speaking out they risk being reprimanded and not being chosen (for Olympic teams).”
In other words, Rule 50 or not, protest isn’t always a good career move. As much as the most famous incident of Olympic protest has long been romanticized as a watershed moment that’s now universally celebrated, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the U.S. sprinters who raised their black-gloved fists to the sky at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, were hardly embraced by the powers that be. They were heckled with racist taunts, suspended by the U.S. team and booted from the Olympic village. They faced considerable backlash upon their return to the States.
It would be nice to believe we’re arriving at a moment when the new generation of the Olympic movement’s social justice advocates could count on the unequivocal support of the IOC, which, back in June, declared itself against racism and discrimination “in the strongest terms.” But as in the matter of whether or not they’ll actually get around to holding the Games in Tokyo next summer, it’d be a step too far to say anything’s for certain.