In January of 2020 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) laid out new guidelines that banned competing athletes from making political, religious, and ethnic demonstrations at the 2020 (+1) Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.
The longstanding Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which was instituted in 1975, already prohibited acts of protest, but it failed to give much clarity on what exactly constituted such a demonstration.
The new guidelines are more explicit, citing examples that include displaying political messaging in signs or armbands (including Black Lives Matter), kneeling, disrupting medal ceremonies, or making political hand gestures.
The Olympics “are not and must never be a platform to advance political or any other divisive ends,” said IOC President Thomas Bach. “Our political neutrality is undermined whenever organizations or individuals attempt to use the Olympic Games as a stage for their own agendas, as legitimate as they may be.”
There has been pushback, however. “So much being done about the protests. So little being done about what we are protesting about,” U.S. soccer player Megan Rapinoe who wrote in an Instagram story. “We will not be silenced.”
In an IOC survey of 3,547 Olympians, at least 70 percent of athletes stated that it was “not appropriate for athletes to demonstrate or express their views” on the podium, field of play, and during the Opening Ceremony.
Yet throughout the 125-year history of the Olympic games the storied event has been a successful platform for protest:
1906: In the first recorded Olympic protest, Irish long jumper and silver medalist Peter O’Conner shimmied up the 20-foot flagpole during the medal ceremony to unfurl a green flag embroidered with a shamrock, harp and the words “Erin Go Bragh” (Ireland forever) — the popular maxim of the Irish independence movement, writes the Washington Post. O’Conner’s stunt garnered media coverage in Britain and the United States on the topic of Irish Home Rule, yet his protest did not result in any sort of penalty.
Two days later he won gold in three competitions, waving his green flag after each win.
1968: Perhaps the most famous protest came at the Mexico City Olympics when American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously raised their fists in a Black Power salute to highlight racial inequality while standing on the medal podium to receive their respective gold and bronze medals. Silver medalist, Australian Peter Norman, stood in solidarity with them, wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge during the ceremony. The silent protest effectively ruined all three athletes’ career, with the Americans being sent home and Norman — despite qualifying for the 1972 Olympics — being overlooked by the Australian Olympics committee.
Despite the backlash Carlos told the New York Times in 2016, “I’m proud of what we did.”
“They never let us forget that we were wrong,” Smith added. “We were not wrong. We were only ahead of our time.”
1968: While Smith and Carlos’ raised fists remain an iconic symbol of protest, Věra Čáslavská, a Czechoslovakian gymnast, made similar waves in Eastern Europe when she took the Mexico City Games as an opportunity to take a stance on the Soviet regime.
Two months prior to the games, to quell the “Prague Spring” the Soviet Union had invaded Čáslavská’s homeland. Previously outspoken against Soviet rule the gymnast was forced to flee into a forest for safety. Using a log as a makeshift balance beam and shoveling coal to toughen up her hands, Čáslavská’s goal for the Games was to “sweat blood to defeat the invaders’ representatives.”
Controversially, the Czechoslovakian was forced to share floor gold with Soviet athlete Larisa Petrik. As the Czech and USSR flag were raised side by side, Čáslavská subtly turned her head away.
“The action was understated,” writes the BBC. “The ramifications were huge.”
Čáslavská retired after the Games after winning four golds and two silver medals. However, she was unable to live a normal life for the next two decades as she was ostracized from gymnastics community and forced to work as a cleaner. It was not until the fall of Communism — over 20 years later — that Čáslavská was welcomed back into the fold.