IOC facing a fight to prevent athletes taking a stand in Tokyo

Medal podium would provide perfect platform for movements like Black Lives Matter

By now we should have been six weeks away and drawing up the list of venues and events not to be missed.

It feels a bit weird for anyone who has mapped out a good part of their lives in four-year cycles, although with or without a Tokyo Olympics there is probably enough footage in the can already for one neatly packaged episode of Reeling In The Years.

Besides, "there's definitely a lot more anxiety and nervousness around now than there used to be," says Bob Dylan, to Douglas Brinkley, in an interview in Friday's New York Times, and without tearing down any walls or statues it's easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred.

Over in Lausanne this week the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were counting the $800 million worth of reasons behind postponing the Tokyo Games into 2021, and found at least one to be thankful for. The world suddenly feels different now and without the pandemic they might have been facing a lot more anxiety and nervousness around their own once sacred medal podium.


Back in January, the IOC updated Article 50, one of 61 in their 105-page Olympic Charter, which effectively outlaws any sort of protest in or around the Games: political or racial, peaceful or profound, religious, conscionable or sexual, all athletes are kindly asked to keep it to themselves. Or else face disqualification.

This is drawn up under the IOC’s own Athletes’ Commission guidelines, designed in part to protect athletes from potentially divisive protests, and help keep some sort of safe moral ground. Such protests are defined as “displaying any political messaging, including signs or armbands”, “gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling” and “refusal to follow the Ceremonies protocol” – which doesn’t actually leave much room for any demonstration at all.

Had the Opening Ceremony gone ahead this July 24th, as originally planned, in the current climate of not just the Black Lives Matter movement but the apparently increasing power of social media dissent, how long before someone took a knee? And once they started handing out the medals, how soon before another took a stand? Who would they disqualify first?

Over 50 years since Tommie Smith and John Carlos made the world look up at the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City – standing barefoot after winning gold and bronze in the 200m, wearing civil rights badges, and each raising one black-gloved hand in the Black Power salute black – these may be biggest questions facing the IOC.

Smith and Carlos, remember, were both disqualified by the IOC from competing in the subsequent relays, and for many years afterwards felt the brunt of their actions at home in the United States.

Eventually, Smith and Carlos were welcomed back by the IOC, and at their Olympic museum in Lausanne there is now a large photograph of this exact image, above the headline: “When the podium becomes a stage.”

The problem is when the medal podium starts to become a stage for everyone, whether they like it or not. If part of the Black Lives Matter movement is ensuring more voices are heard and less are kept silent, the Tokyo Olympics, even a year from now, will likely become the biggest stage of all.

Other sporting bodies, including Fifa and the NFL, have already softened their stance on peaceful protests, especially around the taking of the knee – Fifa president Gianni Infantino in fact applauding the Bundesliga protests against George Floyd's killing.

Balancing act

No one will be watching the return of global sport more closely than the IOC, who whether they like it or not now find themselves revisiting Article 50: IOC president Thomas Bach admitted as much this week by saying the commission will "have dialogue with athletes around the world to explore different ways for how Olympic athletes can express their support for the principles enshrined in the Olympic Charter in a dignified way".

This is going to prove a delicate balancing act; the more the IOC try to fight the protests, the more likely they are to happen, gain momentum, and in turn gain exposure; the more the IOC allow them, the more extreme they might become, or else simply messy, neither of which would be particularly good for sport. And do the TV cameras simply begin to cut away?

It’s certainly easy to imagine some athletes taking the risk right now, given the attention they would likely get. And it might prove more risky for the National Olympic Committee to stand in the way, or at least to start raging against it.

And should the Irish Olympic athletes get in on the act over, say, our treatment of the Travelling community? Or around Direct Provision? Where is the line in the sand?

Who knows what state the the world will be in another year from now, and whether or not allowing athletes to take a stand in Tokyo will remove the last perceptible distance between sport and protest, but either way the IOC have a fight on their hands.