Why did the IOC put Gwen Berry on probation? Fist-raise at 2019 Pan-Am Games saw sponsors flee
Athlete Gwen Berry courted controversy after turning her back to the flag in the Olympic trials Saturday, June 26. However, this is not the first time the hammer thrower has protested racial injustice. In 2019, she was placed on probation by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) after she raised her fist at the 2019 Pan-American Games in Peru.
Berry turned away from the flag during the medal ceremony of the US Olympic trials on Saturday as the “Star-Spangled Banner” played. She also wore a black t-shirt with the words “activist athlete” over her head in protest. Berry later claimed the playing of the national anthem appeared to be a "setup" because athletes were allegedly told it would be played before they reached the podium.
2019 Pan-American Games protest
African-American Berry and fencer Race Imboden took to the podium in protest at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. Berry, who had won gold in the hammer throw event, raised a clenched fist in protest against racial injustice in America "and a president who's making it worse," referring to former President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, Imboden took a knee to protest. The USOPC subsequently placed Berry on probation, with a warning that she would face a more severe reprimand if she protested again.
However, the organization lauded athletes who began protesting in wake of the death of George Floyd in March last year, prompting criticism from Berry, who demanded an apology from the USOPC for its apparent hypocrisy. She particularly took issue with USOPC chief executive Sarah Hirshland's letter to US Olympic athletes saying it stands "with those who demand equality."
"I want an apology letter .. mailed .. just like you and the IOC MAILED ME WHEN YOU PUT ME ON PROBATION," Berry tweeted. "Stop playing with me." She later tweeted, "I want a Public (apology) now. I lied."
I want an apology letter .. mailed .. just like you and the IOC MAILED ME WHEN YOU PUT ME ON PROBATION.. stop playing with me https://t.co/qCWGINHg8M— Gwen Berry OLY (@MzBerryThrows) June 2, 2020
I want a Public One now... I lied https://t.co/CDLSpdxYm8— Gwen Berry OLY (@MzBerryThrows) June 3, 2020
The athlete later revealed she had been contacted by US Track & Field CEO Max Sigel, who arranged a meeting between Berry and Hirshland. "We were able to share our views and perspectives, of recent tragic events, and the USOPC’s efforts to proactively be part of the solution to bring about change. The first step towards change is peaceful protest to raise awareness," Berry wrote in a tweet.
To share our views and perspectives, of recent tragic events, and the USOPC’s efforts to proactively be part of the solution to bring about change. The first step towards change is peaceful protest to raise awareness— Gwen Berry OLY (@MzBerryThrows) June 4, 2020
The next step is to ensure there are proactive efforts to
facilitate dialog and listen, share perspectives and hopefully start to build trust. Only then can proper plans and programs be developed to move forward. While we are all still grieving and hurting, addressing the issues of systemic social injustice and inequality in America are— Gwen Berry OLY (@MzBerryThrows) June 4, 2020
"When I took my stance, it was at a time when things were happening, but nothing was being done," she later told Sports Illustrated in an interview. "When I took my stance, I was completely misunderstood. Now I feel like everyone feels how I felt."
In January last year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) sent out a warning letter that any athlete protesting on the podium at the Tokyo Olympics would face disciplinary action. The Games were subsequently rescheduled for summer 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. In April this year, the IOC upheld its ban on protests after reviewing "Rule 50," which maintains that "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”