Saunders’ podium gesture sparks standoff between IOC and US Olympic leaders

Both organisations claim the other party will be handling the matter

Raven Saunders   of the US raised her arms and crossed them in the shape of an “X” on the podium after receiving her silver medal in the shot put. She said later the gesture was  “for oppressed people”. Photograph: Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images

Raven Saunders of the US raised her arms and crossed them in the shape of an “X” on the podium after receiving her silver medal in the shot put. She said later the gesture was “for oppressed people”. Photograph: Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images

 

In the morning, Raven Saunders of the United States captured the silver medal in the shot put.

At night, Saunders delivered the first political demonstration on the podium at the Tokyo Olympics when she raised her arms and crossed them in the shape of an “X” after receiving her medal, setting the stage for a standoff between the International Olympic Committee and US Olympic leaders.

The organisations have conflicting rules and views regarding the exercise of free speech during the Olympics. Asked after the medal ceremony as she walked toward a phalanx of television cameras about the meaning of the gesture, Saunders said it was “for oppressed people”.

Minutes later, an American fencer, Race Imboden, went to the podium at a different venue after the United States took the bronze medal in foil. He had a circled “X” written on his hand. In 2019, Imboden knelt during the playing of the national anthem at the Pan Am Games.

Photos taken during Sunday’s bronze medal match show that Imboden did not have the symbol on his hand during the competition. It was unclear what the meaning of the mark was, but US Olympics officials said they had begun to hear in recent days that athletes were planning protests.

The IOC and its counterparts for the United States quickly said the other party would be handling the matter.

From the IOC’s perspective, Saunders’ gesture looked to be a clear violation of the organisation’s prohibition on political demonstrations on the podium or during competitions, even though the organisation in recent months has relaxed its rules against demonstration in other areas the Olympic committee controls.

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The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee has a different set of rules and has said it will no longer punish athletes who exercise their free speech rights, so long as they are not expressing hate.

Saunders could face a wide range of punishments, everything from a reprimand to having her medals stripped and being barred from future competitions. But it is not clear what will happen because the IOC has declined to detail penalties for violations.

Minutes after Saunders’ demonstration, Mark Adams, chief spokesperson for the IOC, said the initial decision rests with the athlete’s national Olympic committee because under the process, those organisations are responsible for policing athlete behaviour.

Jon Mason, a spokesperson for the US Olympic Committee, initially said on Sunday night that the organisation was reviewing the gestures but then said that the IOC would be taking the lead. He said US officials had been informed that the IOC would be addressing the matter at its next daily news briefing, on Monday morning.

Wide gap

The wide gap between the IOC leaders and their US counterparts on the issue became public in June 2020, when Casey Wasserman, the leader of the organising committee for the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, urged the IOC president, Thomas Bach, to end the organisation’s ban on political demonstrations at the Games.

Then in December, US Olympic officials announced that they would not punish American athletes who speak out during the Games, so long as they don’t express hatred toward or attack any person or group.

The United States has taken the position that it won’t punish or reprimand athletes who make political statements, regardless of what punishment the IOC decides to mete out. National Olympic committees and international sports federations can suspend athletes from competition, and as signatories to the Olympic Charter, they theoretically have to carry out a punishment demanded by the IOC.

“They have the authority and the jurisdiction and a unique set of sanctions,” Sarah Hirshland, chief executive of the USOPC, said last week of international Olympic leaders.

“We sit in a different seat.”

Bach ordered the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission to study the issue. The commission conducted a survey that said two-thirds of athletes who responded favoured keeping the field of competition and the podium free of demonstrations.

The IOC adjusted its rules slightly in the spring but in June said athletes would be allowed to exercise free speech rights anywhere except during competitions and awards ceremonies. - The New York Times

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