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It's Not Yet Clear If Team USA Will Punish Athletes Making Political Protests in Pyeongchang: Expert

Almost 50 years ago, two black Americans raised their fists on the medal podium and were expelled from the Olympics after pressure from the IOC

Politics has become a major player in sports since Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem last year in protest of police brutality. That act led to a national debate, more protests and eventually even a politicized visit to the White House for one championship team.

Kneeling might also bring politics to the forefront of the Pyeongchang Games in 2018, if a competitor chooses to bring Kaepernick's form of protest to the world stage.

They would be doing so despite an Olympic rule that prohibits political protests — the Olympic Charter states that "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas." But it’s difficult to tell what would actually happen if such a protest were to occur this February, according to one Olympic historian.

David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, said that the rule, which was put in place in the early 1960s, was mainly to prohibit advertisers from overtaking the venues. The political aspect, he said, was added "almost as an afterthought."

The rule's political component was tested soon thereafter when two black Americans raised their fists in a symbol of the Black Power movement as they stood atop the podium for the 200-meter dash in 1968.

The International Olympic Committee, the governing body of the Olympic Games, put "enormous pressure" on the United States Olympic Committee to punish Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Wallechinsky said. As a result, they lost their medals and were expelled from the rest of the Mexico City Games.

Nearly 50 years after Smith and Carlos, all eyes will fall on the Americans who top the podium again as the debate over how athletes should behave when "The Star-Spangled Banner" is played carries on.

The anthem has become a focus of President Donald Trump's, who has lashed out at Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who was the first to sit and kneel during the anthem year.

Trump called out the players carrying on his protest this September, saying at a rally in Alabama that any "son of a of b----" who kneels during the anthem should be fired by his team's owner, prompting more than 200 players across the league to kneel during the anthem.

The issue has spilled across the sports world. The 2017 NBA champion Golden State Warriors had their invitation for the customary title-winners' visit to the White House rescinded when Trump took issue with criticism from one of its players. Meanwhile, the NHL champion Pittsburgh Penguins did not criticize the president's comments and made the visit. 

Trump has continued to pressure the NFL to ban kneeling or sitting for the anthem, creating a political conundrum the league has yet to solve. Commissioner Roger Goodell said that while the NFL believes "everyone should stand for the national anthem," he has no plans to mandate it.

Potential American Olympians were left to reflect on whether symbols of patriotism should take precedence over the freedom to express a political position. 

"Part of me would be proud of that person for standing up or kneeling, or whatever, for their rights and using their voice," alpine skier Laurenne Ross told the Los Angeles Times at the time of Trump's divisive comments. "Part of me would be a little bit heartbroken that we are being torn as a nation and we are doing these actions that make us seem that we're not one anymore."

"I would have no problem doing something," freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy told The Washington Post about protesting during the anthem at the Winter Games. "I think there would be teammates that would stand with me."

If an athlete does kneel during the national anthem, it would be up to the United States Olympic Committee to decide how to react, said Wallechinsky, who has written histories of the Summer and Winter Olympics.

A spokesman for the USOC declined to comment on what would happen, while the IOC said in a statement ahead of the Pyeongchang Games that, as with any issue that arises, any demonstration prohibited by rule 50.2 will be reviewed "on a case by case basis."

But USOC CEO Scott Blackmun has discussed the issue, saying at a recent media summit in Park City, Utah, "I think the athletes that you see protesting are protesting because they love their country, not because they don't." 

He added that he and the USOC "recognize the importance of athletes being able to express themselves." But he also referred to the Olympic Charter and implied that he expects Team USA athletes to adhere to the political protest rule.

What the IOC does permit is political displays that represent entire nations, said Wallechinsky. That’s why an athlete can wave their nation’s flag after an event. It’s also why Nazis were allowed to salute during the 1936 Games.

Kneeling or raising a fist during the national anthem does not represent the entire country, which is what makes it potentially problematic, Wallechinksy said.

But even so, it is hard to tell how political statements can be received.

During the 2016 Rio Games, Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms above his head as he reached the finish line. The gesture was meant to show solidarity with Ethiopia’s native population, the Oromo people, who were being persecuted, he said. Wallenchinsky pointed out that the IOC did not punish Lilesa. (The runner never returned to Ethiopia out of fear of persecution and now lives in Arizona.)

Wallechinsky noted one way athletes can protest without falling afoul of the IOC's rule:  "There is nothing that stops athletes from expressing themselves outside of the [Olympic] venue." 

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