The Silent Shout in Protest

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By Enefiok Udo- Obong

On a night over shadowed by the great world record run from Joshua Cheptegei, it is forgivable not to remember the raised gloved fist of Noah Lyles at the start of the 200m during last weekend’s Diamond League competition in Monaco. The action was akin to the actions of US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos on that fateful morning during the 1968 Olympic Games. Then it was a Black power salute, and in Monaco on Friday, almost 52 years later, it was in solidarity for Black Lives Matter, almost the same cause.

With the increased viewership and passionate followership worldwide, Sport is an obvious choice for voices to reach a large target. The sheer numbers that tune into different sports make it attractive to advertisers and also to people with a cause to promote or publicize. And it is so much so for the greatest sporting showcase in the World, The Olympics. As the biggest multi sports event watched by over 2 billion people it is a great avenue for people and companies to advertise their goods or make their causes heard. It is even more powerful a voice when athletes themselves are the carriers of these protests.

In 1968, as a response to the two American athletes’ public protest, the International Olympic Committee president, Avery Brundage saw this gesture as a domestic political statement unfit for the Olympic Games. In pressured the American Team to expel the two athletes from the Games. Today, the IOC has Rule 50 in its charter to guard against open show of protest by athletes.

Rule 50 states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

However some have argued that this is gagging athletes as they have a freedom of expression clearly defined in their recently documented Declaration of Athletes Rights. Though there is a thin balance in preserving the neutrality and brand of the Olympics and obstructing the rights of individual expression.

Recently, the International Paralympics Committee (IPC) have called athletes together for consultations on protests at the Paralympic Games as societal and global events recently have really brought injustice and racial prejudice to the fore especially in Sports.

Pressure has grown on the IOC to relax Rule 50, which bars athletes from protesting at Olympic venues and sites during the Games, in light of worldwide demonstrations following the death of George Floyd in the United States.The move from the IPC follows the International Olympic Committee tasking its Athletes Commission to conduct a similar exercise amid growing pressure on the organization to relax or abolish its Rule 50, which prohibits athletes from protesting at the Olympic Games.

“We all know that athlete protests at the Games is something of a Pandora’s Box. The last thing we want to do is create a free-for-all at the Games where Para-athletes are free to protest on any subject they like, including ones the wider world will find repulsive, as this will overshadow the sporting performances. Our aim is to strike a fine balance whereby Para-athletes can raise their views in a constructive way rather than use the Games as a platform to spread hate.” said Chelsey Gotell, the IPC Athletes’ Council chairperson.

Protests on the stage of sporting events have become popular.The cases of hammer thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden were highlighted as part of discussions on Rule 50, with the two athletes protesting at last year’s Pan American Games in Lima.

Since August 2016, some American athletes have protested against police brutality and racism by kneeling on one knee during the U.S. national anthem. The protests began in the National Football League (NFL) after San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat and later knelt during the anthem, before his team’s preseason games of 2016. Throughout the following seasons, members of various NFL and other sports teams have engaged in similar silent protests

IOC President Thomas Bach, who has been an advocate of athletes’ rights, has refused to rule out allowing podium protests – although it is thought unlikely these will be allowed during the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games – and warned of the need to differentiate between what he called “divisive demonstrations” and suitable forms of protest.

Many sporting organizations support advocacy against injustice using their field of play. While the English Premier league disallows the use of gestures and personal signs to highlight political beliefs (The former French international striker played his last game for Premiership side West Bromich Albiom FC after using a political gesture during a goal celebration), it has encouraged anti-racism protest by supporting kneeling before Premiership games recently.

A minute’s silence at the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is one of the options being considered within International Olympic Committee (IOC) circles as a compromise in relaxing Rule 50. However the debate is on and no matter what is reached, Sports has become a platform for the oppressed to protest different forms of injustice.

So the voices of the protesters somehow would be heard…even in silence.