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International Olympic Committee’s no-protest rule silences, intimidates athletes

John Carlos: ‘Why do I have to sacrifice my moral character’ to participate in the Olympics?

In November, just two months ago, after 51 years of denial and hostility, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee inducted Tommie Smith and John Carlos into the USOPC Hall of Fame. On its face, the induction repudiated the USOC’s attempts to destroy them, threatening to rescind their medals, expelling them from the Olympic Village, getting them sent out of the country. Maybe, after being miles behind the two sprinters morally for a half-century, the USOC was signaling as an institution it had caught up to them. It was a nice sentiment.

In a world of bullies and autocrats, assassinations and blackballing, the induction felt like an oasis, an overdue balm — until the International Olympic Committee reminded the world two weeks ago there is no such balm. The oasis was a mirage.

Seven months before the Summer Games begin in Tokyo, IOC president Thomas Bach announced athletes who protest during the games would be punished – and could even be sent home.

“Everyone wants to be in the Olympics,” Carlos told me Monday. “But why do I have to sacrifice my moral character to do it?”

Because of the misdirection and propaganda, misinformation as strategy that has become standard from today’s institutions, the IOC statement of keeping “the venues, the Olympic Village and the podium neutral and free from any form of political, religious or ethnic demonstrations” might appear reasonable, but in reality it is a silencing.

Once the stable refuge where two plus two always equaled four, even math and science are places where people believe they are entitled to their own sets of facts. The IOC edict is attacking athletes and expression, blackness and truth no differently from what the USOC did to Smith and Carlos a half-century ago. In many ways, it might be worse.

By positioning the Olympics as neutral, Bach is using distortion as a primary weapon to decouple the Olympics from its supposed values in favor of a new creation: a partnership of corporate wealth and state nationalism, neither of which may seem immediately synonymous with “politics,” yet couldn’t be more so.

The IOC rule is designed to intimidate the athletes to perform while it continues to collect billions from countries hosting the Games. The rule is designed to keep the athletes from affecting the money.

The corporation blunts the athletes, reducing them into commercial vehicles for McDonald’s, Visa and every other Olympic sponsor; demanding an athlete’s performance while prohibiting their right to speak creates a dehumanized tool of the state, its policies and its politics. Perhaps Bach, the German, should recall the emotional trauma suffered by German athletes forced to compete under the Nazi flag who did not believe in what it represented.

The threat to the IOC is not politics but protest and blackness. By cloaking its intentions in a blanket of unity, the IOC is paving the way for autocracy, to continue selling the Games to countries with atrocious human rights records as more countries reject the Olympics for what it is: a financial loser.

The Games will become even more attractive to countries making the political choice to attempt to use the Olympics to raise their international profile. The IOC rule is designed to intimidate the athletes to perform while it continues to collect billions from countries hosting the games. The rule is designed to keep the athletes from affecting the money.

The 2014 Sochi Games occurred as Russia was invading Ukraine. The enduring power of the 1936 Games was entirely political, with the world on the edge of war and Hitler’s Nazism at the center of the Games. The IOC banned South Africa for 21 years for its politics of apartheid. More than 20 African nations boycotted the Melbourne Games in 1956 over apartheid in New Zealand. The United States boycotted the Moscow Games in 1980 as a political action to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, the Soviets boycotted the 1984 Games in Los Angeles in response.

Those times were no more divisive than these. By specifically focusing on the raised fist and the bended knee protest gestures, the IOC is also signaling to the USOC that it intends to control the black athletes through threat — being a good international partner by preventing black athletes from taking advantage of the international stage to draw attention to human rights. The player as pawn.

The aims of the IOC and USOC are clear, but less so is what black athletes will do in response. American hammer thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden were placed on 12 months’ probation for raising a fist and taking a knee, respectively, during a medal ceremony at last year’s Pan American Games.

Gwen Berry of the U.S. in action during the women’s hammer throw event at the IAAF World Challenge Golden Spike athletics meeting in Ostrava, Czech Republic, June 20, 2019.

MARTIN DIVISEK/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

State flag stickers adorn bombs and missiles, tanks and warcraft. They speak for a country, its actions and its values. But the target of the IOC is the athletes — athletes who do not invade countries but protest power and conditions.

“If you want to take politics out of the games,” Carlos said, “then take all the national flags down and put up one Olympic flag and let all of the athletes play under it.

“Everyone thinks, ‘If I’m subservient, America will take care of me,’ ” Carlos said. “But having a gold medal around your neck doesn’t save those kids in my neighborhood. It doesn’t stop hunger. It doesn’t stop the actions of policy in our community. We’re not saying bomb or invade anyone. We’re saying aside from medals there are greater things in this life I’m concerned about.”

It is, as Carlos believes, no longer his fight, and he grows frustrated that his phone is the one that rings when it is time for today’s Olympians to show they are more than brand vehicles afraid of discipline. He is 74 years old. He will be watching how the athletes respond to the pressure of having their voices threatened, and their reactions to the assault on blackness.

Tommie Smith (center, first place) and John Carlos (right, third place) of the U.S. raise their fists in a human rights protest during the playing of the national anthem at the Mexico City Games in 1968.

Rich Clarkson/Getty Images

“There were Nazi flags all around the 1936 Games, and no one did anything about it. But when two black individuals make a statement, it’s a crisis,” he said. “And shame on those black individuals who wrap themselves in the flag who aren’t willing to recognize the American policies responsible for the atrocities going on around the world. It’s all about shutting us down. It’s a travesty to try and tell an athlete they have to perform while surrendering their moral character. It’s a greater travesty if you allow them to.”

Americans should be familiar with the IOC’s aggression toward its athletes, for many applaud the similar silencing taking place here, where its major sports leagues sell war, nationalism and police while penalizing individual athletes who say anything about it. American hostility to protest mirrors the IOC’s. Leagues and their network partners erase a player’s 100 million-viewer platforms by preempting potential protests by airing commercials instead of broadcasting the national anthem.

Americans are comfortable with the politics of F-14 flyovers and servicemen and women on the field while blaming the individual athlete for contributing to his or her own demise by committing the high crime of speaking. The IOC is doing nothing the NFL hasn’t done. Perhaps that’s where Bach got the idea.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball," "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron" and “The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism.” His book, “Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field,” is to be released Jan. 21.