Why will Athletes be punished for taking a knee in 2021 Tokyo Olympics?
Against the backdrop of the BLM movement protesting racial injustice, calls increased for change to IOC rule.
Why will Athletes be punished for taking a knee or lifting a fist in support of racial equality in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, The International Olympic Committee (IOC) maintained its ban.
Sport is tilting towards an inflection point known as protest fatigue. For almost a year, a realm that was once people’s sanctuary has morphed into a platform for every type of performative outrage, and weariness is setting in.
Taking the knee, we discover, no longer has quite the original impact the 917th time around. Anti-racism sentiment loses sincerity when it is expressed solely as a pin badge or a raised-fist emoji. And so for the grandest show on Earth, the Tokyo Olympics, the suits in Lausanne have decreed that there shall be no protests at all. Once, there would be a case for depicting this as an outrageous muzzling of free speech. Now it feels, frankly, like a relief.
The picture painted this week by the International Olympic Committee was clear: two-thirds of athletes, asked about a potential change to Rule 50 – banning demonstrations of “political, religious or racial propaganda” on Games sites – did not feel such displays were appropriate.
That there was resistance within as broad a church as the IOC was not itself a surprise. In Iran, political dissent can be punishable by death. In Turkey, it can carry a five-year prison sentence. But the sheer scale of global opposition suggests a collective desire to restore the Olympics to their essence of “higher, faster, stronger”, as opposed to “louder, shriller, worthier”.
We can hardly ignore the irony of the IOC disavowing protest, recalling how the Games set the stage for sport’s most iconic act of rebellion when Tommie Smith and John Carlos lowered their heads and raised their gloved fists into Mexico City sky. In 1968, at the height of the civil rights revolution, these men of courage, standing shoeless on the podium to symbolise poverty in the African-American community, knew that the forces they were unleashing could end their careers. Their gesture of defiance was, in sport at least, all the more resonant for its rarity.
In 2021, sports fall over themselves to convey solidarity. This week, as police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted in Minneapolis of the murder of George Floyd, statements of commitment to the battle against racism were rushed out double-quick by the US Olympic team and by every major sports league in the land.
It was, on the surface, a commendable response, and yet it smacked of a safety-in-numbers approach. For the truly brave are those who strike out on a limb, who risk profound personal sacrifice to have their voices heard. Colin Kaepernick was one such figure. But some of those following in his wake, not least the sports bodies speaking out on the Chauvin case, seem only to lift their heads above the parapet when it is politic to do so. Theirs is less a protest of conviction than a quest for easy validation.
It is tempting to believe that the spirit of ’68 is all around us, in the unrest on the streets, in the challenge to traditional orthodoxies, and in the rise in athlete activism. But what if we are seeing less a mass movement than a law of diminishing returns? Sports protests are everywhere now, multiplying to the stage where their meaning is being lost. You see it in the Premier League, where Wilfried Zaha, a proud black man, is so turned off by the perfunctory ritual of taking the knee that he decides he can no longer take part. And you see it in the Olympics, where 70 percent of athletes, worn down by the constant pressure to make a stand, believe that the focus in Tokyo should be firmly on the sport.
After all, it is not as if the IOC is known for its receptiveness to revolt. Even when Russia provoked international uproar through state-sponsored doping, president Thomas Bach could not bring himself to utter a word of censure. And even if there are renegade protests in Tokyo, the IOC is locked into a Winter Games six months later in Beijing, where the Chinese Communist Party stands accused of genocide against the Uighurs. What, athletes could be forgiven for asking, is the point of taking on a sports organisation of such incorrigible stubbornness?
The IOC, we have long since learned, would never take such radical steps as alienating the Chinese, who have contributed lavishly to their coffers. Instead, they prefer the easy, tokenistic nonsense, such as proposing a revision this week to their 19th-century motto so that it becomes more inclusive. The answer? “Higher, faster, stronger – together.” Seriously, where does this end? As with the Prime Minister’s latest Covid incantation, “Hands, face, space – and fresh air”, politicians of all stripes are so desperate to appease everybody that their slogans no longer even scan any longer.
There will be satisfaction inside the IOC that Tokyo can be assured of hosting a protest-free Olympics, far from the madding crowd – or perhaps any crowd at all, come to that. They will also be cheered that their friends in Beijing can be spared any embarrassment in 2022. But by upholding Rule 50, they can be said to have done the right thing for the wrong reasons.
Their insistence that sport and politics should not mix is often a blithe and self-serving position, and yet the number of athletes who endorse it suggests that it could, on this occasion, be the correct one. Over the past year, sports protests have proliferated to the point of futility, blunting any appetite for more. Tokyo 2021 might be the time if only for two weeks, to dial down the rage and celebrate sport for its own sake.