The International Olympic Committee Must Foster Free Speech on the Global Stage

By Katie Hawkinson

During the medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, which took place at the height of the U.S. civil rights movement, two Black American runners, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their fists in a Black Power salute. An Australian competitor joined them in a show of solidarity. 

In 1980, then-President Jimmy Carter declared U.S. athletes would boycott the Olympic Games in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union’s refusal to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Carter even threatened to rescind the passports of any American athletes who refused to participate in the boycott. 

At the 2004 Athens Olympics, an Iranian judo champion protested the suffering of Palestinians by refusing to fight an Israeli opponent. 

These protests all have one thing in common: They were prohibited under Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter — first introduced in 1950 under a different name — which bans any form of protest or political demonstration during the games. 

Track runner Tommie Smith raising his fist in a show of “Black Power” at the 1968 Olympics

Although these and other examples appear to show athletes’ proclivity for flouting Rule 50, Olympians are still susceptible to repercussions mandated under the regulation. Both Smith and Carlos were banned from all future Olympic games for their display of solidarity, for example. But despite these penalties, protests at the Olympic Games persist, and many linger in the public conscience long after they occur. 

Years from now, the same will probably be said of the Black Lives Matter movement, which began during the 2010s amid repeated instances of unarmed Black Americans dying at the hands of police officers. The movement surged in May 2020 after nationwide and worldwide demonstrations in reaction to a police officer killing George Floyd in Minneapolis. On June 9, 2020, at the peak of these events, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) released a reminder that its ban on protests was still in effect, particularly mentioning that kneeling during national anthems — a gesture popularized by professional football player Colin Kaepernick to protest the mistreatment and oppression of people of color in the United States — is prohibited.

“Athletes at the Olympic Games are part of a global community with many different views, lifestyles and values. 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 wrote. “It is a fundamental principle that sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference. Specifically, the focus for the field of play and related ceremonies must be on celebrating athletes’ performance, and showcasing sport and its values.” 

But protests in sports are an important part of bringing the world’s attention to weighty issues that otherwise may have slipped under the public’s radar. Furthermore, they allow athletes from across the world to exercise Free Speech and peaceful dissent. Rule 50 undermines the positive social progress that international athletic competitions can foster. The Olympics are among the few periodic occasions when the entire world comes together; the IOC has a rare opportunity to foster Free Speech in a global setting, and its members must work to do so. 

The committee released its warning before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were rescheduled for 2021, due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, so a test of its enforceability in this era has been postponed. Now, athletes and members of the Olympic community are advocating for the IOC to abolish Rule 50 ahead of the 2021 Summer Games. 

Global Athlete, a worldwide organization of Olympic competitors, has advocated for the abolition of Rule 50, stating, “athletes have had to choose between competing in silence and standing up for what’s right for far too long. It is time for change.” Global Athlete claims Rule 50 violates athletes’ human rights, maintaining that the opportunity to protest is an essential one that must be protected. 

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s Athletes’ Advisory Council also spoke out against Rule 50 in June 2020, stating that the restriction oppresses all athletes’ right to speech and must be repealed. This position is a radical shift from its stance on Rule 50 only a year earlier; at the 2019 Pan American Games, athletes Gwen Berry and Race Imboden respectively raised a fist and took a knee on the podium during the national anthem, expressing their support for Black Lives Matter. Citing Rule 50, the committee placed both athletes on a yearlong probation. If the U.S. Olympic Committee can make this important shift to respect athletes’ right to Free Speech, the IOC can and should as well. 

Other large sports organizations have responded similarly. For instance, on June 5, 2020, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell expressed regret for the organization’s initial negative reaction to the phenomenon launched by Kaepernick in 2016. In a Twitter video, Goodell told his audience, “We were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.” The NFL — an organization with a significant history of shutting down gestures such as Kaepernick’s — is now encouraging its athletes to exercise their right to protest, and the IOC would do well to follow in its footsteps.

Furthermore, in the days following the Aug. 23 shooting of Jacob Blake, yet another unarmed Black man, by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, protests across the country erupted in support of Blake. Teams from numerous sports have also come together in an impressive show of solidarity to support Blake and the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole. The NBA postponed three different games scheduled to occur at the end of August; on Aug. 27, the WNBA postponed six of its games in a similar show of support. The MLB and NHL followed in their footsteps, each postponing several games scheduled for the last week of August, and the NFL canceled all practices on Aug. 27 to focus on facilitating conversations about race. 

Although the Olympic Games do aim to bring global communities together in harmony, they can also serve to give Free Speech an honored place on the global stage. The IOC has an opportunity to offer athletes an invaluable platform to draw the attention of audiences worldwide to important universal causes. By getting rid of the oppressive Rule 50, the committee could help athletes inspire social change and encourage Free Speech on an unprecedented global scale.