Sports Have Always Been Political — So Why Is The Olympics Banning Protests And Kneeling At Tokyo Games

New IOC rules ban protesting and kneeling for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo

The summer Olympics tend to feature plenty of excitement. Over two weeks filled with the opportunity to provide at-home commentary on sports like diving as if you know how much splash is too much splash; watch hundreds of world-class athletes at the top of their physical games like breakout star Pita Taufatofua, the flag-bearer from Tonga; and cheer for the United States's women's gymnastics team, also known as the Final Five. There are Instagrams, there is heartbreak, and there is plenty of drama. But the one thing the International Olympic Committee (IOC) doesn't want at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo? Protesting.

On Thursday, the governing body behind the biannual event warned athletes not to engage in physical protests while at the Games, the Washington Post reported. A three-page breakdown of Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter explains that "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas." In defining what a protest is or isn't, the rule bans "displaying any political messaging, including signs or armband, gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling," and "refusal to follow the Ceremonies protocol." The rules state that athletes are allowed to "express their views" during press conferences and interviews, as well as on their social media accounts, but such vocalization is off-limits during ceremonies, in the Olympic Village, and during matches or games.

"There is a need to respect other athletes and their moment of glory, and not to draw attention away from that in any way. With demonstrations on the field of play, at the Olympic Village or during the official ceremonies, the dignity of the competition or the ceremony in question is destroyed for all the athletes concerned," the rules state. "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 act of fighting back against oppression has been a dependable trait of sports and athletes since at least 532, C.E., The Undefeated points out. Fast forward a few hundred years, and you'll find that not much has changed — political undercurrents have routinely informed the biggest sports stories of the day.

At the Olympics alone: Jesse Owens nabbed four Olympic gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, which were held in Nazi Germany; Team USA had almost boycotted the games but then-president of the American Olympic Committee Avery Brundage, said "the Olympic Games belong to the athletes and not to the politicians." (Adolf Hitler banned Jewish people from sports clubs prior to the games.) At the 1968 games in Mexico City, American sprinters Juan Carlos and Tommie Smith protested the poverty that many Black Americans experience, and commemorated the victims of racist lynchings; they were suspended from the team and all but shunned in their own lives. And in 1980, the United States boycotted the Olympics in Moscow after the Soviet Union and President Jimmy Carter clashed over Afghanistan.

Especially notable in the IOC's new rules is that the ban includes kneeling, which was cemented as an act of protest when then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee before a football game to protest police brutality. He was joined or supported by dozens of athletes both inside and outside the NFL. Among those who knelt in solidarity was Megan Rapinoe, the star soccer player who later used the speech she gave at the 2019 Glamour Women of the Year awards to highlight Kaepernick's work, and denounce the racist systems that in many ways allowed her to be celebrated while he is still unemployed as an athlete.

She added that when she was growing up, her mother stressed, "'You ain’t shit ’cause you’re good at sports. You ain’t shit 'cause you’re popular. You’re gonna be a good person. You’re gonna be kind. And you’re gonna do the right thing. You’re gonna stand up for yourself, always. You’re gonna stand up for each other, always. And you’re damn sure going to stand up for other people. Always.'"

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