Should sports and politics mix? Prior to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) didn’t think so.
While footballers and American basketball players routinely “take the knee” before matches to exhibit solidarity towards the ‘Say No to Racism’ campaign, IOC chief Thomas Bach prefers athletes to avoid controversies.
The German, a former Olympic fencing champion, says the motto of the Games is to propagate sporting excellence.
His viewpoint contrasts sharply with several prominent athletes who think, through their elevated status as icons and in an era of renewed athlete activism, they can bring about a change in society.
The IOC has, at times, struggled to enforce Rule 50 of its Olympic Charter, which states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
And the global governing body has been forced to soften their stance for Tokyo, allowing athletes to protest before the start of the competition but not on podiums, which is being viewed as an attempt to limit political demonstrations from hijacking the headlines.
Validation after 49 years
That should be music to the ears of Ankie Spitzer. The 75-year-old is in a tussle with the IOC for almost half a century over the demand of a tribute at the Olympics in the honour of her Israeli fencing coach Andre and 10 others, who were slain by Black September gunmen at Munich 1972.
Though it is yet unclear whether her wish for a minute’s silence would be granted or not for the ‘Munich Massacre’, she has been personally invited by Bach for the 32nd Games’ opening ceremony, to be held on Friday.
“I am hopeful that we are going to hear what we have been waiting 49 years for,” Spitzer told British daily the Times.
The invitation is being viewed as IOC’s attempt to heal old wounds and chart a more moderate path on a tricky subject.
Spitzer claims Bach told her that the IOC plans to do ‘something creative’ in respect to the memory of the murdered athletes.
“I told him not to be creative, but finally he should do the right thing,” the Times quoted Spitzer as saying.
While the inclusive gesture could deny athletes a chance at ‘headline-grabbing’ but IOC’s attempt at controlling the narrative could get delicate.
Signs of sparks are already visible, as earlier this week, the South Korean team were ordered to remove flags that referenced a 16th-century admiral who defeated a Japanese fleet.
Several athletes, notably 200m world champ American Noah Lyles, have openly expressed desire to demonstrate their political beliefs at an opportune moment.
He has previously ‘raised his fist’ in a race in Monaco, referring to the ‘Black Power’ podium salute of 1968 200m champion Tommie Smith and bronze medallist John Carlos in Mexico City.
Smith and Carlos were kicked out of the Games, effectively ending their track and field careers, and shunned by the general American public for a long time.
The same fate also fell on Australian Peter Norman, the silver medallist in 200m in 1968, who shared the podium with Smith and Carlos wearing an ‘Olympic Project for Human Rights’ badge. Norman was refused entry into the 1972 contingent despite qualifying.
The Australian government offered a posthumous apology to Norman only in 2012, six years after his death. And it is only now that their stance is being viewed in a kinder light.
Athletes divided over protests
But not all athletes are on the same page as Lyles.
The IOC Athletes Commission said in April that 67 per cent of 3,500 athletes believed that the protests on the podium were inappropriate, Around 70 per cent also don’t want it to happen on the field of play.
American hammer thrower Gwen Berry reckons no efforts could stop athletes from protesting at the Games if they wanted to.
History and the IOC would judge them kindly and might even laud them for being humane.
A brief look at the history of protests:
Athens, 1906: British Olympic Council athlete Peter O’Connor waves Irish flag, violating IOC rules
Mexico City, 1968: John Carlos and Tommie Smith offers the Black Power salute on the 200m medal ceremony podium
Australian co-medallist Peter wears an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge during the same ceremony.
Czechoslovak gymnast Vera Caslavska turns her head away from Soviet flag during medal ceremony.
Munich, 1972: Eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team were killed by eight members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September.
Athens, 2004: Iranian world judo champ Arash Miresemaeili refuses to fight Israeli judoka Ehud Vaks as Iran refuses to recognize Israel due to their conflict with Palestine.