I was not even born when the greatest of all athletes, Jesse Owens, denied Hitler the spectacle of Aryan supremacy during the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
I was just a toddler when Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a black gloved fist to protest racism at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. Australian Peter Norman completed the trio of protesters, not by raising his fist, but by displaying the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge.
In my career as a sports journalist, I have seen athletes protesting against unfair refereeing in numerous sporting events without any repercussions. But almost always when the athlete protests against social injustice, they are penalized.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has maintained that the Olympics should not be used as a stage for political demonstration, no matter how good the cause was.
Rule 50 of the IOC’s charter enforces political neutrality at Olympic Games but allows athletes to express opinions in post-competition interviews and on social media. Raising a fist or taking a knee, or wearing armbands or signs on the field of play or during medal presentations are currently banned under the IOC’s charter.
IOC president Thomas Bach continues with his verbal semantics by insisting that athletes must explore ways they can express themselves “in a dignified way”.
What is the dignified way of expressing outrage over racism, sexism or inequality? Who decides what is ‘in a dignified way’? How do you dignify racism?
The Commonwealth Games at least has taken a positive step. Athletes competing at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, will be allowed to take a knee to support the ‘Black Lives Matter’ (BLM) movement, according to the Games chief executive David Grevemberg.
The IOC never misses the chance of reminding the world of the Olympic Charter that outlines the rights and freedoms of the Olympics without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
Just making statements without fundamental changes on the ground is just political propaganda in itself.
Last week, the IOC confirmed that its guidelines against any protests — including taking a knee or raising a fist at medal ceremonies — were “still in place.” Athletes who violate such guidelines would face bans from the organization on a case-by-case basis.
The IOC seemingly wants to maintain the status quo while giving an outward appearance of softening their stance. The Global Athlete Movement (GAM) has already condemned the IOC’s stance as a breach of human rights.
The Olympics churns money like no other sporting spectacle any disruption to it would seriously affect the movement’s financial standings. So it turns a blind eye to the atrocities that happens right under its nose.
Past hosts of the Olympics have blatantly denied its own citizens basic human rights, yet the IOC never had an issue with them hosting the Games.
Whether it was Germany in 1936 or Russia in 1980 or China in 2008, the IOC had no qualms of allowing the hosts to use the Olympics to sugarcoat their transgressions. With the continued systemic racism, which is being gas-lighted by the American president himself, does the USA have a moral right to host the 2028 Olympics?
The IOC are quick to silence the athlete’s voice but sees no reason to stop countries with questionable human rights records to host and participate in their marquee event.
“Silencing the athlete voice has led to oppression, silence has led to abuse and silence has led to discrimination in sport,” said the statement from GAM.
Athletes have had their careers ended abruptly for protesting against injustice before this without the IOC lending much of a support to the affected athlete.
Protesting against injustice has been costly for the athletes but it has also been fruitful in some instances.
For Norman, just displaying just a badge of protest was enough for Australia to deny him future Olympic appearances despite qualifying for the 1972 Games. Both Smith and Carlos, who were banished from the Games, went back to a frosty welcome in the US.
It took decades before the trio were even recognized for their bravery in making a statement over racism and injustice. But after half a century nothing much fundamentally has in fact changed.
It was different for Feyisa Lilesa. The Eriterian held up his crossed wrists as if they were shackled as he took marathon silver at the Rio 2016 Olympicsin protest at the treatment of demonstrators back home. He had remained in exile for two years, saying his life might be in danger.
Feyisa is from Oromia, home to most of Ethiopia’s 35 million Oromo people, where a wave of anti-government protests began in the region in November 2015 with people complaining about social and political marginalisation.
The demonstrations led to the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn as prime minister in February 2018. Sweeping reforms implemented by Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy, who came to office in 2018, encouraged Feyisa to return home last October.
That athletes are allowed to protest when the game results goes against them, but are denied to protest against human rights issues is rather baffling. While the IOC bans athletes from “using” Games for politics, the organisation itself has no reservations in doing so themselves if it helps to put them in a better light.
In 2018, the IOC allowed the North Korean regime to co-host the Winter Olympics with South Korea. And we all know how the North Koreans treats its own citizens.
Whether it is the IOC or any other sporting entity, continually paying lip-service in the matter is deplorable. Athletes are symbols of unity and play a bigger role in the development of not only sports but in creating a just society through sports.
In a sporting world that is controlled by money; individuality, free expression and the will to fight for human rights must never be controlled. By doing so, these organisations themselves are the oppressive regimes.