Olympics Bans Political Statements by Athletes during Games

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Gwen Berry protesting on the medal stand during the 2019 Pan-American Games
Source: Jerry Brewer, “Athlete Activism Is Growing and Diversifying, Just in Time for the 2020 Olympics,” washingtonpost.com, Aug. 13, 2019

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned athletes from making “political, religious, or ethnic demonstrations” while on the field of play, in the Olympic village, and during medal and other ceremonies during the Olympic Games.

In the Rule 50 Guidelines released on Jan. 9, 2020, the IOC stated, “When an individual makes their grievances, however legitimate, more important than the feelings of their competitors and the competition itself, the unity and harmony as well as the celebration of sport and human accomplishment are diminished.”

The list of banned protests includes political messaging such as signs or armbands, political hand gestures such as raising a fist, kneeling, or refusing to follow ceremony protocol. Athletes are permitted to express political opinions during press conferences and team meetings, and on social media.

If an athlete breaks the rules, the case will be evaluated individually by the National Olympic Committee of the athlete’s home country, the International Federation, and the IOC. Any punishment will be determined on a case-by-case basis.

The newly released rules are at least partially in response to protests during the 2019 Pan-American Games in Lima, Peru.

US hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised her fist in protest at the end of the US national anthem during her gold medal ceremony in Lima. She was placed on a 12-month probation by the IOC, during which she could face more serious consequences if she breaks the rules again. Berry stated, “They [IOC] want it to just be sports, for the love of sports. We sacrifice for something for four years, and we’re at our highest moment. We should be able to say whatever we want to say, do whatever we have to do – for our brand, our culture, the people who support us, the countries that support us, [everything]. We shouldn’t be silenced. It definitely is a form of control.”

American fencer Race Imboden took a knee during the awards ceremony of the 2019 Pan-American Games and was also put on probation for 12 months. Letters sent to Imboden and Berry in Aug. 2019 from the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland indicated that future protests may be more heavily punished: “It is also important for me to point out that, going forward, issuing a reprimand to other athletes in a similar instance [of protest] is insufficient.”

Megan Rapinoe, professional soccer player, Sports Illustrated 2019 Sportsperson of the Year, and member of the US Olympic soccer team, wrote on Instagram: “So much being done about the protests. So little being done about what we are protesting about. We will not be silenced.”

IOC president Thomas Bach defended the ban, saying, “The mission of the Olympics is to unite and not to divide. We are the only event in the world that gets the entire world together in a peaceful competition.”

The Tokyo Summer Olympics will take place July 24 through Aug. 9, 2020. In late 2019, the World Anti-Doping Agency banned Russia from participating in the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics as well as the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics due to doping violations.

Discussion Questions – Things to Think About
1. Should Olympic athletes be punished for political protests during the Games? Why or why not?

2. Should sports be separated from politics? Why or why not?

3. Do you believe athletes’ political protests can be effective? Explain your answer.


Dan Bieler, “U.S. Fencer Race Imboden Given 12-Month Probation for Pan Am Games Protest,” washingtonpost.com, Aug, 20, 2019

Jerry Brewer, “Athlete Activism Is Growing and Diversifying, Just in Time for the 2020 Olympics,” washingtonpost.com, Aug. 13, 2019

Henry Bushnell, “Gwen Berry, US Olympian Who Raised Fist, on IOC’s Protest Policy: ‘We Shouldn’t Be Silenced. It’s a Form of Control,'” sports.yahoo.com, Jan. 9, 2020

The Guardian, “IOC Lays down the Law over Olympic Protests by Athletes in Tokyo,” theguardian.com, Jan. 9, 2020

International Olympics Committee, “Rule 50 Guidelines Developed by the IOC Athletes’ Commission,” olympic.org (accessed Jan. 20, 2020)

Sophie Lewis, “International Olympic Committee Bans Political Protests by Athletes at 2020 Games,” cbsnews.com, Jan. 9, 2020

Cassandra Negley, “In Reprimanding Pan Am Gold Medalists for Anti-Trump Protests, USOC Sends Strict Message to Team USA,” news.yahoo.com, Aug. 21, 2019

Nicole Rojas, “Hammer Thrower Gwen Berry, Who Raised a Fist at Pan Am Games, Tells TNS New Olympic Guidelines for Protesting ‘a Form of Control,'” thenorthstar.com, Jan. 13, 2020

Jenna West, “Megan Rapinoe on IOC’s Ban on Political Protests at 2020 Olympics: ‘We Will Not Be Silenced,'” si.com, Jan. 10, 2020