Olympic protest ban is a corporate power play that could backfire badly on IOC

By banning protests on the field of play and at official ceremonies, the International Olympic Committee has unintentionally created the perfect environment for dissent, writes Oren Weisfeld.

IOC ban on protests on field of play or podium has unintentionally created a perfect environment for dissent

By putting athletes in a high-risk, high-reward situation, the International Olympic Committee's recent decision to ban political protests by those competing in the Games has the potential to backfire. (David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images)

This column is an opinion by Oren Weisfeld, a Toronto freelance journalist who focuses on the intersection of sports and politics. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Fifty-three years ago, on April 28, 1967, at the U.S. Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Houston, Muhammad Ali refused to respond to the call of "Cassius Clay'' and refused the draft during the Vietnam War. Later, Ali justified his decision by asking the world, "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam, while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?"

It was the single most important political protest in the history of sport. At the very top of his game, Ali sacrificed everything and sparked a meaningful debate about race relations and the morality of America's involvement in Vietnam.

Furthermore, Ali set a new precedent of what athletes are capable of, stepping out of the boxing ring and into the arena of politics. No athlete has yet matched Ali's political significance.

And powerful sports organizations such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) hope to keep it that way.

The IOC recently released new guidelines banning athletes from any act of political protest, beginning with the upcoming 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Late boxing icon Muhammad Ali sparked global debate when he refused to be drafted during the Vietnam War. His draft-evasion conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971. (Charles Harrity, File/Associated Press)

While Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter already prohibited athletes from protesting at the Games, what constituted a protest remained ambiguous until now.

The new guidelines specify that athletes are allowed to express themselves in news conferences and on social media, but not on the field of play or at official ceremonies. Examples of banned protests include kneeling, politically motivated hand gestures, political messages on signs or armbands, and disruptions of medal ceremonies.

Athletes who fail to comply with these guidelines will be disciplined on a case-by-case basis.

The IOC wants us to believe that they created these guidelines based on the "fundamental principle that sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference," but that is simply not true. Sports, and the Olympics in particular, have a long history of political involvement.

The timing, however, is not a coincidence.

Creating this policy during a time of peak athlete empowerment and significant political upheaval — just two years ahead of the 2022 Games in contentious Beijing — shows that the IOC fears losing control. They are afraid that athlete protests could harm their delicate relationships with sponsors and host countries.

And they should be.

While it's true that no athlete has matched Ali's political significance alone, athletes have collectively done so much more, following in his footsteps by using their power and influence to stand up for what they believe in and change the world.

And due to the celebrity culture we now live in, athletes are more famous and influential than ever, affording them a platform that has never been bigger.

Americans Tommie Smith, centre, and John Carlos raise their gloved fists on the podium during the American national anthem in a human rights protest at the 1968 Olympics. (The Associated Press)

The past few years have seen political activism in sports reach new heights.

Athletes such as football player Colin Kaepernick, soccer star Megan Rapinoe, and international icon LeBron James have normalized political protest in sport, using their power and influence to bring attention to the issues closest to their hearts.

Sure, the main goal is to improve the communities they care about most. But by speaking out against the ruling class, athletes are collectively doing something else, too: they are changing a top-down power structure that has existed in sports since before the days of Ali.

Historically, sports organizations have dictated the terms of engagement. The shareholders and owners have held all the power, using athletes as replaceable cogs in their multibillion-dollar machines.

However, athletes have begun to change the power dynamics in sport through protest, putting organizations like the National Football League (NFL), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the United States Soccer Federation, and now the IOC, in uncomfortable situations.

San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick, right, received death threats for refusing to stand during the American national anthem. (Mike McCarn/The Associated Press)

Kaepernick took a knee during the American national anthem in 2016 to protest police-involved shootings of unarmed black Americans, causing a political and cultural firestorm — one so threatening the NFL has been accused of colluding to keep Kaepernick out of a job.

James called Donald Trump a "bum" in 2017 and has increasingly spoken out about African American issues.

Rapinoe and her team sued the U.S. Soccer Federation for gender discrimination in 2019 and has become a spokesperson for womens rights.

More recently, two Americans used their medal-winning moments to protest at the 2019 Pan Am Games, as fencer Race Imboden took a knee and hammer-thrower Gwen Berry raised her fist.

It's in response to these acts of protest — and the turmoil they caused — that the IOC created a policy to try to avoid being put in a similarly uncomfortable situation.

And although the ban is an act of corporate power, it actually proves that the protests are working.

Gwen Berry, who won gold in hammer throw at the 2019 Pan Am Games, raised a fist in protest on the podium and was subsequently reprimanded by the U.S. Olympic Committee. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

The IOC is acting from a place of weakness, creating a ban out of desperation after witnessing the rise of athlete empowerment. The IOC understands that the Olympics represent the biggest public platform in sports. 

By banning protests, the IOC has unintentionally created the perfect environment for substantive dissent to take place. Athletes understand that their protests are now more necessary than ever.

Although they carry more risk now, too.

By putting athletes in a high-risk, high-reward situation, this policy has the potential to backfire significantly on the IOC. If enough athletes speak out against the ban, and if some protest at the Games in spite of the ban, the IOC will need to revisit the policy and reconsider their relationship with athletes in the process.

One step backwards. Two steps forward.


Oren Weisfeld is a freelance journalist from Toronto who focuses on the intersection of sports and politics. His work can be found at CBC, NOW, VICE Sports, Raptors Republic, The Western Gazette, FanSided, and his blog, orenweisfeld.com.