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IOC Officials Weigh Allowing Athletes to Protest Racial Injustice at 2021 Games

2 Jul, 2020

By: Michael Popke

It’s been a while since we’ve seen NFL players take a knee in the name of civil rights, but as sports slowly return, expect to see plenty of public displays of protest by soccer players, NACSAR drivers and other athletes. 

And it’s not just professional sports leagues that will need to address the issue. “The International Olympic Committee is consulting with athletes over its Rule 50, which bans protests at the Games,” reports Reuters/ABC, adding that athletes breaking the rule, which included prohibiting taking a knee, are subject to discipline on a case-by-case basis.

“The IOC[‘s] and IPC’s [International Paralympic Committee] recent statement that athletes who ‘take a knee’ … will face bans is a clear breach of human rights,” Global Athlete, an international athlete-led movement that aims to inspire change in world sport, said in a statement. “Athletes around the globe … demanded change.”

The organization also stated that Rule 50 is a “clear breach of every athletes’ human rights. … Athletes devote years of their lives to qualify for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. If athletes want to speak up while respecting other rights and freedoms detailed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the IOC should embrace their diverse opinions. Silencing athletes should never be tolerated. Athletes are influencers, but they can only fight social injustice and assist in making the world a better place if their freedom of speech is protected, not punished.”

According to Reuters/ABC, the IOC now will let athletes decide how best to support core Olympic values “in a dignified way.”

“If the IOC now allows competitors to take the knee in support of Black Lives Matter, it will suggest that the conversation on the political nature of international sport is becoming more nuanced and mature and that athlete activists and allies will no longer have to make the difficult choice between compromising their ideals and jeopardizing their careers,” Martin Polley, a sports historian at De Montfort University in Leicester, England, told NBC News. “But we also need to remember that the IOC was one of the first international sports organizations to expel apartheid South Africa in the early 1960s, an expulsion that ended in 1992, and that its recent work on creating refugee teams has given opportunities to athletes displaced by war and political turmoil.”

That said, Andy Miah, co-author of the book, The Olympics: The Basics, told NBC News that allowing protests could weaken their impact. “To protest is to defy rules or conventions, and the strength of the message, the symbolic act, can be diminished if it becomes permissible,” he said. “There may be some value in maintaining the rule, if only to ensure that any protests retain the gravitas that they deserve.”

The cries to abolish Rule 50, meanwhile, are mounting. Recently, the USOPC’s Athletes Advisory Council sent a letter to the IOC, requesting the rule be abolished as not merely outdated but a violation of human rights. (The letter is available here).

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