International Olympic Committee bans athletes from kneeling, political hand gestures and protests at Tokyo Games

Guidelines came into force after some American athletes kneeled and raised a fist to protest during medal ceremonies at the Pan-American Games in Peru last August


                            International Olympic Committee bans athletes from kneeling, political hand gestures and protests at Tokyo Games
(Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) on January 9 came up with a decision that has already stirred up a controversy. The body has posted a three-page guideline reiterating Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter which bans all kinds of demonstrations and political, religious or racial propaganda at any Olympic venue, site or any other place. 

The decision that came ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled in July-August, bans taking a knee, political hand gestures and showing disrespect during medal ceremonies. According to the IOC, while the athletes are banned from protesting during play, in the Olympic Village and during medal and other official ceremonies, they are allowed to express themselves politically at press interviews outside the Village, in meetings and on media platforms, including social media. 

'Harmony in an increasingly divided world'

Stressing on harmony in an increasingly polarized world, the IOC said in a statement: "We believe that the example we set by competing with the world's best while living in harmony in the Olympic Village is a uniquely positive message to send to an increasingly divided world. This is why it is important, on both a personal and a global level, that we keep the venues, the Olympic Village and the podium neutral and free from any form of political, religious or ethnic demonstrations."

Olympic medal-winning, Afro-American athletes for the 400 m (from left to right) Lee Evans (gold), Larry James (silver), and Ron Freeman (bronze) at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. The three wear black berets in sympathy for their suspended compatriots who gave the Black Power salute as the American national anthem was played (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The international body said “expressing views” is different from “protests and demonstrations” and in the latter category, comes political messaging, gesturing and refusal to follow protocol of ceremonies. It also warned of taking disciplinary action if the athletes failed to abide by the rules. 

While the Olympics have been a platform of great social movements in the past, display of protests at sporting events in recent years has perhaps made the IOC cautious. Guidelines came into force after a couple of American athletes kneeled and raised a fist, respectively, to protest during medal ceremonies at the Pan-American Games in Peru last August. Both were sent to a year-long probation which will bar them from taking part in the Tokyo Games. 

2 Swiss footballers and their political celebration

In 2018, Fifa investigated two Swiss footballers who made a political celebration of their goals scored in a game against Serbia by gesturing Albania’s national symbol with their hands. The two players — Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri — did so to assert their Albanian ethnic heritage. The two countries are known for their sour relations.

Xherdan Shaqiri of Switzerland celebrates after scoring a goal during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group E match between Serbia and Switzerland in 2018 in Kaliningrad, Russia (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Among past instances of showing protest at the Olympics come American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos' raising fists against racial discrimination at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Both were suspended from the national team later and they were homeless and jobless though history pardoned them as both were recently inducted into the US Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame, after over half a century. 

“The mission of the Olympic Games to bring the entire world together can facilitate the understanding of different views, but this can be accomplished only if everybody respects this diversity,” the IOC said.

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