Can we fight better? Rule 50, activism at 2021 Tokyo Olympics

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With their gloved fists held high and their heads bowed, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Black medalists at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, stood on the podium in socked feet. Although this brave action, now known as the Black Power salute, has become one of the most iconic scenes in Olympic history, it was originally met with fierce animosity.

Not only did the crowd shout cruel insults and slurs enough to drive Smith and Carlos out of the stadium in a hurry, but the two athletes were also suspended from the U.S. team and thrown out of the Olympic Village following their protest. Even after the event, they faced backlash from various media outlets and were nearly effaced from U.S. sports circles despite their accomplishments. It was not until 2019, 51 years after their highly contested demonstration, that they were finally welcomed into the Olympic Hall of Fame.

The harsh treatment Smith and Carlos endured came not solely from the racially discriminatory sentiments that dominated the United States at the time, but also from a particular policy of the International Olympic Committee, or IOC: Rule 50. On the Olympic Charter, Rule 50 sets a strict protocol against any kind of political gesture at the games. As stated in the charter, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” is allowed at the Olympics. Athletes who choose to violate the rule face case-by-case disciplinary actions, which often result in serious blackballing, like Smith and Carlos faced.

Turning the clock forward to 2020, the IOC’s stance on the issue remains the same, if not more severe.

In January, the IOC published newly minted guidelines to Rule 50, specifying that hand gestures, kneeling, signs or armbands that suggest a “political nature” are prohibited at the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games. Anything that could possibly disrupt the image of the “peaceful society” that the IOC idealizes in its charter, regardless of its cause, is condemned by the precept.

But after the brutal killing of George Floyd this May, society will never be the same.

People around the world roared in the wake of his death, and protests against racism, police brutality, ignorance and above all, the failure to change the systemic oppression of Black individuals, have occurred in more than 40 countries around the globe.

Athletes have also been an integral part of these protests. NBA players have joined in marches across the country, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests, which left him jobless, have since been permitted by the NFL. German soccer player Jadon Sancho revealed an undershirt with the message “Justice for George Floyd” on it after scoring for Borussia Dortmund in late May and was then yellow carded. Players in dozens of sports at every level have been speaking out, and it doesn’t seem like they’ll stop now.

In the midst of some of the biggest protests in decades, athletes around the world are moving to bring activism into the Tokyo Olympics, now scheduled for 2021. The Global Athlete group is demanding that the IOC repeal the infamous Rule 50 from the charter, forcing the committee to rethink its policies, which have been handed down for years. Because the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which has a history of condemning athletes who protest in the competition, also showed support for the cause, all eyes are on the IOC and how it will move to accommodate athletes’ protests during the event.

Nonetheless, Japan, the host country, is somewhat of a stranger to this global movement. Due to the self-proclaimed culture of homogeneity and the small Black population in the country, news coverage on the killing of Floyd remains scarce. Though some small protests were held in major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, the Japanese Olympic Committee has remained silent, apparently too busy planning the “simplified” Olympics for 2021. Not issuing an official statement on Floyd’s death or subsequent protests, in addition to reforming Rule 50 to make it stricter, is painting next year’s Olympic hosts as indifferent to the struggles of the many Black athletes who will be participating in the games.

However, Japan should not remain strangers to this protest, and sports are changing people’s awareness of social issues. In recent years, ethnic diversity among Japanese athletes seems to be increasing. Global stars such as half-Hatian Naomi Osaka and half-Beninese Rui Hachimura have risen to fame, breaking the stereotype of the nation’s racial homogeneity and thus opening discussions about various forms of racial discrimination in Japan and the world at large.

Most importantly, though, the Olympics will bring global attention to Japan, and due to the coronavirus pandemic and travel restrictions, it is likely that the main audience in the stadium will be Japanese. It would be disheartening to replay the actions of the 1968 crowd, which showed no support but rather gave cruel treatment to the athletes who stood up for a significant cause.

If we believe in preserving “human dignity,” which the Olympic Charter aims to maintain, Rule 50 needs to be reconsidered, and audience members should be aware of the depth of the issue to better support athletes’ actions. As a global sports community, we have to fight better, and it takes both sides — the Olympic committees and the audience members alike — to support potential activism in the Olympic Games. Hopefully, next year we will find out how the IOC, Japan and the world will make sports a more inclusive environment.

Eriko Yamakuma covers men’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected].