Canny IOC makes sure it remains lord of the five rings

Olympic Letter from Japan: protest should not be about obeying establishment rules

The Irish women's hockey team took the knee just before the final game in their Pool A match against Britain last week. The British team also made the protest, as they had done in previous matches, at the Oi Hockey Stadium in Tokyo.

All 22 starting players went down simultaneously for a few brief seconds, and stood up just before the match was due to begin. Turn away for a moment and you would have missed the short, sharp expression of solidarity.

In equestrian the Irish riders wore a yellow ribbon in memory of 15-year-old horse rider Tiggy Hancock, who died following an accident during a training session at a Dublin equestrian centre in June.

In this summer’s Tokyo’s Games gestures are everywhere.


On soccer pitches all over Japan women players from the USA, Sweden, Chile, Britain and New Zealand took the knee before their games on opening night, expressing opposition to racism, which had not been seen before on the Olympic stage at such a level.

In athletics Raven Saunders of the USA delivered the first political demonstration on the podium when she raised her arms and crossed them in the shape of an X after receiving her silver medal in the shot put. The gesture was made to highlight the plight of oppressed people.

From an International Olympic Committee (IOC) viewpoint that probably rates as a successful hit rate. Just one podium protest since the Games began. The IOC is a canny bunch. It permits protests but not on the podium receiving medals. Before a match is okay, receiving a medal is not okay.

Rule 50 of the IOC charter states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

But just a few months ago, in the face of mounting pressure to remove the rule, the IOC made its latest tweak, saying it would allow some demonstrations but only “prior to the start of competitions” and not on the medals podium.

The IOC has also given discretion to the international governing bodies that run the individual sports on how and whether to enforce the bans.

The adjustment of its Rule 50 seems like a reasonable compromise but it does beg one question. If athletes are permitted to do it, then can it really be considered a protest?

Catastrophic loss

People will draw their own conclusions. The yellow ribbon, Tiggy’s favourite colour, is obviously to serve as a memory of a talented young girl after such a catastrophic loss. The knee has political connotations, as does the crossed arms.

But the IOC is smart enough to regularise the idea of protest by controlling the behaviour and telling the athletes where they can protest and where they can’t protest, which serves to entirely remove the sting from the protest itself.

A protest is a challenge, it is dissent. It is an outcry, a revolt. The last thing a protest should be about is obeying establishment rules. The IOC knows this, the canny lot that they are.

Its logic also seeks to demonise the protesters who do break the compromise rules during the medal ceremony. It says that if the protest is done with respect it is permitted, the inference being that protests from the podium are disrespectful to other athletes. That is being pushed as a fact, one the IOC came up with itself. The irony there is a killer.

From Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968 to Saunders in 2021, the protests have largely been to highlight the lack of respect for minority communities. But that's the IOC, a large machine that seeks and suppresses anything it believes will be damaging to the beloved five rings. Nothing seems as important as the brand.

Trying to get access to the women’s weight-lifting event this week was another case in point, and another softly, softly suppression of stuff the IOC would prefer didn’t get global aeration.

The event is restricted, it says, because of the number of applications to see Laurel Hubbard in the women's +87 kg.

Hubbard is the first transgender athlete in the Olympic Games representing New Zealand, a controversy certainly. But like every stadium in Tokyo, there is an almost endless amount of empty seats as there are no spectators allowed into any of the arenas. It is not difficult to accommodate the demand to watch Hubbard and report the reactions of the other athletes. Yet the IOC decides on restriction. Somewhere there is a rule about that too.

Peaceful protest

“The British hockey team has being doing it before all of their matches,” said a team official. “We had this discussion with our athletes before the Games, and said if you decide to make a peaceful protest it must be done with respect to the other team and to inform the other team beforehand that you are doing it.

“Without having spoken to the British hockey players, I assume that is what took place, and that the Irish players also rowed in with the British team.” It was what took place, and, as always, the Irish team did it together as a group.

Yes, it is the Olympic Games, and athletes are there to play and win and cry and celebrate, and that’s their priority. Still, is a protest not about going where you are not allowed to go, saying what you are not allowed to say, rattling the cage, not complying.