Among the many inspiring displays at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington is a statue of U.S. Olympic athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos thrusting their clenched fists into the air as they received their gold and bronze medals at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. It was a defining moment of the era - two African American athletes representing the U.S. at the pinnacle of global athletics silently telling the world they were one with the struggle for racial equality.
But under a new rule adopted by the International Olympic Committee, such displays would be banned at this summer’s Games in Tokyo. It’s an absurd decision.
The IOC said the rule reflects its longstanding desire to insulate the international sports competition from controversy. So it will not allow “political messaging, including signs or armbands” nor “gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling.” Athletes will be able to raise issues in interviews with reporters and on social media, but not on the field or in the Olympic Village, nor during any Olympic ceremonies.
Yet an international competition between nations is inherently political, a reality the IOC has itself embraced upon occasion.
The Olympic Games have aspired to transcend politics, but in reality they never have been able to do so. And they shouldn’t. Teams march into the opening ceremonies under national flags and receive medals as national anthems are played. During the Cold War, the medal race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was a closely followed.
The IOC ought to rethink the ban on free expression. A clenched fist or a kneeling athlete will do little to disrupt the spectacle of the Olympics, and there is nothing to be gained by punishing athletes who use a few seconds in an international forum to draw attention to issues they feel deeply about.
-Los Angeles Times