In Efforts to Remove Political Speech, IOC Leaning on Phony Image Of Olympics

William Pitts
John Carlos and Tommie Smith give the Black Power salute in 1968
John Carlos and Tommie Smith give the Black Power salute in 1968 / -/Getty Images

In what is sure to be a victory for those who live by the motto of "stick to sports," (but a slap in the face to those living in the real world), the International Olympic Committee laid down specific guidelines on exactly when and how Olympic athletes can make "political, religious or ethnic demonstrations" during the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Specifically, athletes are forbidden from protesting on the field of play, in the Olympic Village, and during the medal ceremonies. However, they are allowed to conduct such activities over social media or during interviews outside the Village. The guidelines were laid bare in a three-page PDF.

The new rules stem from two separate incidents involving American athletes at the Pan American Games in Peru in August, where fencer Race Imboden kneeled and hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised her fist at their respective medal ceremonies. Both received 12-month probations, which prevent them from competing at Tokyo.

Now, let's get this out of the way. Yes, we understand what the IOC is trying to do in keeping the Olympic Games enjoyable and free of controversy, and we can't deny that there is a subset of people out there who appreciate it. I myself admit to flipping the channel whenever NBC's Olympic coverage takes time to chronicle an American athlete's "struggle against the odds" - and yes, it's always an American athlete.

But the IOC's efforts will inevitably lead nowhere, as they are dependent upon the image of the ancient Olympics that Pierre de Coubertin carried in his mind once he founded the modern games in the late 19th century - "to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity," to quote the Olympic Charter itself.

That idea of the Olympics as independent of politics is long dead. It was dead even before the Communist nations pulled out of the Los Angeles Olympics, and it was dead even before half of the world pulled out of the Moscow Olympics four years earlier. It was dead long before Jim McKay shed a tear and told America that "they're all gone." It was dead before John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in anger. You could argue it died the moment it allowed itself to become a propaganda tool of Adolf Hitler in 1936.

The Olympic Games themselves have survived, but the idea of the Olympic movement as a force for good is dead in an era when cities have gone out of their way to avoid hosting the games. Athletes, politicians, and terrorist groups alike have recognized the innate appeal of the games as a political tool. Apparently the last people to do so have been the people running the games. Or perhaps they have done so, but they are steadfast to deny it.

More ominous is the IOC's idea of policing what it deems "political, religious or ethnic demonstrations." Why is any such demonstration in the Olympic Village more of a problem than a demonstration that happens outside the village? Are they worried that an athlete will start a revolution?

Stifling the political statements will not remove the politics from the games. On the contrary, the IOC may have just fanned the flames.