Two days before the Olympic flame entered Tokyo’s main stadium for the opening ceremony, members of the women’s soccer teams staged protests.
It started when all of the members of the British team knelt to protest racism. They were joined by their Chilean opponents. Then the U.S. and Swedish players, and even a referee knelt before their match, as did the New Zealand players before their match with Australia, while the Australians posed for a pregame picture with the country’s Indigenous flag to highlight Aboriginal disadvantage. Many more protests are expected during the course of the Games, despite the efforts of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to discourage political protests. In doing so, athletes will be upholding a time-honored Olympic tradition. For over a century, activists have used the Games to stage political protests, and this strategy of athlete activism has only gained more support and visibility with the growing attention generated by the Games themselves.
The modern Olympic Games were a product of a wave of 19th-century globalization. From 1870 to 1914, not only was there a blossoming of empire and international trade, but also of humanitarian and peace movements, of which the Olympic movement was an example. Its founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, believed that Olympiads were a way to communicate “love for concord and a respect for life.” So it was not surprising that activist athletes saw the Olympics as a legitimate forum to promote those values whenever they saw them violated.
The first protest was staged at the 1906 Olympics in Athens. During the medal ceremony, the second-place finisher in the long jump, Irishman Peter O’Connor, shinnied up the 20-foot flagpole and unfurled a large green flag embroidered with a shamrock, harp and the words “Erin Go Bragh” (Ireland forever), the popular maxim of the Irish independence movement. Ever since the brutal invasion of Ireland by Oliver Cromwell in the mid-17th century, there had been no concord between England overlords and the Irish. For O’Connor, the Olympics were an opportunity to draw attention to this injustice. It worked, generating media coverage in Britain and the United States.
In 1952, during the opening ceremony in Helsinki, Barbara Rotraut-Pleyer, a peace activist, invaded the field. Wearing white flowing robes and with her red hair streaming behind her, she did a lap of the infield before stepping onto the officials’ rostrum. She was apprehended before she had an opportunity to grab the microphone and give her prepared speech demanding “the end of all cold and hot wars.” But her dramatic gesture generated global media attention and gave her an international profile. Indeed, in the years that followed, she met world leaders with her messages of peace.
The visibility of Olympic protests — particularly around questions of Black rights — escalated during the 1960s. This was by design. Harry Edwards, who taught sociology at San Jose State University, believed that by disrupting sporting events, African American athletes could confront White America about racial inequality and discrimination. “If there is a religion in this country it is athletics. On Saturdays from 1 to 6, you know where you can find a substantial portion of the country: in the stadium or in front of the television set. We want to get to these people, to affect them, to wake them up to what’s happening in this country, because otherwise they won’t care.”
After launching a successful protest of the New York Athletic Club, Edwards created the Olympic Project for Human Rights as the vehicle to support an idea raised by a talented sprinter at San Jose, Tommie Smith: boycotting the upcoming Olympic Games.
However, Edwards was not able to convince enough African American Olympic hopefuls to support the boycott. Members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights realized that the boycott would fall flat if only a few athletes stayed away, so they decided that they would compete in Mexico City and use the Olympics as a platform to protest.
After winning the 200-meter sprint in world record time, Smith outlined his plan to protest during the victory ceremony to third-place finisher, John Carlos. The silver medalist was an Australian, Peter Norman, who told the two African Americans he would support their protest.
It was early evening when the athletes returned to the infield. After they received their medals, they turned to face their country’s flags, as they were raised in their honor. Then, as the first bars of “The Star-Spangled Banner” reverberated around the stadium, Smith raised his gloved right fist into the air. An instant later, Carlos raised his left fist; it too had a black glove. They stayed in that position, heads bowed, for 72 seconds, until the music stopped. Standing to attention beside them, Norman joined their protest by wearing a white and green protest button that announced: “Olympic Project for Human Rights.” As the music stopped, Americans in the audience started to jeer and spew racist slurs at Smith and Carlos.
The day after the protest ABC’s Howard Cosell interviewed Smith: “My raised right hand stood for the power within Black America. Carlos’s left hand stood for the unity of Black America. Together, they formed an arch of unity and power.” When Cosell asked him if his actions “represent all Black athletes,” Smith said they “represented Black people all over the world.” It was a protest that did not limit itself to racial problems in the United States, and the Olympics gave it a global reach.
Aiming to speak to a global audience, Smith and Carlos choreographed an image that would be understood everywhere: through visual language, the lingua franca of an increasingly globalized world. “We put out a message to be seen not heard,” explained Smith in his autobiography. “We said nothing, but as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.” They succeeded.
In short, the growing media attention devoted to the Olympics created an unprecedented opportunity for their protests to be noticed. The Mexico City Games were the first to be telecast live and were watched by roughly 600 million viewers worldwide.
Immediately after their protest, the U.S. Olympic Committee expelled Smith and Carlos from the Olympic Village. Norman was admonished by Australian Olympic officials for his role in the protest. Then, four years later, despite being Australia’s best sprinter, Norman was not selected for the team that competed in at the Munich Games.
Now, more than 50 years later, a new generation of athletes are willing to risk punishment as they are inspired by the stand taken by Smith and Carlos. One of those athletes is Colin Kaepernick: “I have read about them, studied their public protest, admired their courage and, like many others, I have emulated them,” he explained on his social media.
Like Smith and Carlos, athletes today also understand the power of the media platform they have. For the Tokyo Games, the audience watching on television and streaming platforms is expected to be close to 5 billion viewers — or more than 65 percent of the world’s population, which makes it an irresistible platform.
What has made the Olympics such a successful event is that the language of sport, and the passion it evokes, crosses language barriers. Importantly, for the duration of the Games, the host city is transformed into a global media space. This global focus and shared language also makes the Games an attractive platform for protest.
While the IOC backtracked from a rule banning protest entirely, it still plans to limit athlete activism to before competitions begin and to keep a prohibition on protests on the medal stand. This week, more than 150 athletes, educators and activists signed a letter, asking the IOC to go further, including rescinding the ban on medal stand protest. The letter argued, “We do not believe the changes made reflect a commitment to freedom of expression as a fundamental human right nor to racial and social justice in global sports.” It disputed the contention that the Olympics should remain neutral, arguing, “Staying neutral means staying silent, and staying silent means supporting ongoing injustice.” Among the signatories: Smith and Carlos.