IOC signals plan to continue barring protests, demonstrations during Olympics

The International Olympic Committee indicated Wednesday that athletes will continue to face punishment for protesting or demonstrating while on the medal podium, at official ceremonies, or on the field of play.

The announcement effectively means the IOC is standing pat on a key component of Rule 50 of the Olympic charter, which has long prohibited any kind of "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda" at the Games. It also ensures that the IOC's policy will remain directly at odds with that of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which has said it will not sanction U.S. athletes for such protests and demonstrations at its events – including the upcoming Olympic trials.

Exactly what the sanctions will be for athletes who do demonstrate at the Olympics remains in question and will have to be determined by IOC legal officials.

The news followed an 11-month review of issues pertaining to Rule 50, led by the IOC's Athletes' Commission, a group of current and retired athletes who effectively serve as the voice of athletes on IOC matters.

In a news release, the athletes' commission said it surveyed more than 3,500 athletes from 185 countries, received feedback from 21 national Olympic committees and spoke with human rights experts about issues related to athlete protests at the Games. The commission then issued a series of recommendations to the IOC's executive board, including the continued prohibition of protests on the podium.

The executive board unanimously approved those recommendations Wednesday.

Kirsty Coventry, who chairs the athletes' commission, cited survey results in which more than two-thirds of respondents said they did not think demonstrations on the podium were appropriate.

"A very clear majority of athletes said that they think it's not appropriate to demonstrate or express their views on the field of play, at the official ceremonies, or on the podium," she said during a news conference.

Coventry also demurred when asked about potential sanctions that athletes might face if they do choose to protest.

One reporter asked how John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who famously protested on the podium in 1968, would be treated under the recommended guidelines. The U.S. sprinters were banished from the Mexico City Olympics as punishment, but are now considered icons in the Olympic movement.

U.S. athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos extend gloved hands skyward in racial protest during the playing of national anthem at the 1968 Olympics. (Photo: STF, AP)

"We're asking the (IOC's) legal affairs commission now to come up with proportionate – a range of different sanctions, so that everyone knows going into a Games where and what everyone can and cannot do," Coventry said.

Though the athletes' commission recommended against protests on the podium, it did suggest a number of minor adjustments – including calling for the IOC to "highlight the importance of solidarity, unity and non-discrimination at the opening and closing ceremonies."

The commission also recommended allowing athletes to wear branded apparel "with inclusive messaging" while at the Games, including words like "Peace" and "Inclusion."

But such changes will come as little consolation to some athletes, who have argued they should be able to take a knee, raise a fist, or otherwise demonstrate support for issues like racial and social justice while on the Olympic podium.

"For Olympic athletes, we literally only get one chance every four years," U.S. hammer thrower Gwen Berry told USA TODAY Sports last summer. "People work their (expletives) off for years to get to that moment. So it's important to them. If they want to speak in that moment, they (should) have the right to, because they worked for that."

Berry was previously reprimanded for raising her first while on the podium at the 2019 Pan American Games.

Bach happy with vaccine progress

While Rule 50 was a key topic of discussion following the IOC's executive board meeting Wednesday, IOC president Thomas Bach also offered a few brief updates on the Tokyo Olympics, which are now less than 100 days away.

Bach said organizers still do not plan to require athletes to be vaccinated prior to arriving in Tokyo, even as Japan deals with surging case numbers. He said the IOC will continue to encourage athletes to seek out the shots and he is "very confident" that a significant number of Olympic participants will be inoculated come July 23.

"The great number of (NOCs) have already announced that their athletes will be vaccinated, including the United States with their big team, and a number of others," Bach said. "(I believe) a really big, big number of the participants living there in the Olympic Village will be vaccinated." 

Bach also said updated versions of COVID-19 protocols for the Games, which organizers have dubbed "playbooks," will be released by the end of the month. And he indicated that no decision has been made on the capacity limits at Olympic venues.

Organizers have previously said that international spectators will not be permitted, though some Japanese residents might be able to attend.

Contributing: Nancy Armour

Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

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