The Current

Canadian athletes weigh in on the power — and consequences — of Olympic protest

Amid public debate about whether athletes should be allowed to make political statements at Tokyo 2020, one Mohawk former Olympian says she would "100 per cent be protesting on the podium" were she competing at this year's Games.

Podium makes athletes visible to whole world, but protest shouldn’t disrupt competition, some say

American sprinters Tommie Smith, middle, and John Carlos, right, raise their fists at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The International Olympic Committee recently loosened its rules to let athletes make some gestures of protest during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, including raised fists. (The Associated Press)

Read Episode Transcript

Amid public debate about whether athletes should be allowed to make political statements at Tokyo 2020, one Mohawk former Olympian says she would "100 per cent be protesting on the podium" were she competing at this year's Games.

"There's no words for the amount of pain that is being felt within my community right now as a child of a residential school survivor," said Waneek Horn-Miller, who competed for the Canadian women's water polo team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

"It's permeating every ounce of who I am," she told The Current's guest host, Mark Kelley, referring to the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools.

"When I think of those children … I can't stop thinking about the talent that was lost, the opportunities that were lost, how many … potential Olympians were murdered."

Earlier this month, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) changed its rules to let athletes make gestures of protest in their field of play at the Olympics. Olympians will be allowed to do so prior to the start of competition, after leaving the call room, or during the introduction of an athlete or team.

Kahnawake, Que., native Waneek Horn-Miller was on the Canadian women's water polo team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. She says she would be protesting at this year's games, in the wake of the discoveries at residential schools. (Jeff De Booy/The Canadian Press)

However, athletes won't be permitted to express opinions at the podium. They will face disciplinary action if their gesture is "targeted, directly or indirectly, against people, countries, organizations," or is disruptive, the IOC has said.

Horn-Miller said it's unrealistic to ask Olympians not to raise awareness about who they are. Being an athlete doesn't make them non-political, or shield them from racism and the experiences of their communities, she added.

"The Olympic movement is supposed to be about peace and about unity."

"If you don't acknowledge first what's going on in the world, the pain and the hurt, and [what's happening] in Canada … then you can't get to peace."

Finding a balance to speak out

Mark Tewksbury, a former Canadian Olympic swimmer who is now vice-president of the Canadian Olympic Committee's board of directors, said he agrees that being an athlete doesn't mean you aren't political.

"At the same time, it doesn't mean that everyone's politically driven," he told Kelley.

Mark Tewksbury, a former Olympian and current vice-president of the Canadian Olympic Committee's board of directors, says athletes who want to speak out should be supported, but protest should be done in a way that respects competition. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Last fall, the IOC opened talks with athlete groups about Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which states that, "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

The Canadian Olympic Committee Athletes Commission in collaboration with AthletesCAN conducted a survey of 104 Canadian Olympic athletes, including Olympic hopefuls and retired athletes. Nearly 80 per cent of those who completed the survey last summer felt protests should be kept off the playing field. Sixty per cent of those who completed the survey felt similarly about protests on the podium. 

Tewksbury said the issue should be about figuring out how to help athletes speak out in a way that's impactful, but that also upholds the fundamental principles of the Olympics by being respectful and not distracting athletes from competing.

Marnie McBean, Canada's chef de mission for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, says athletes should be aware of the consequences they could face if they protest during the Games. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

In an interview at the end of June, three-time Olympic gold medallist and Canada's chef de mission Marnie McBean told The Current's Matt Galloway that whether an athlete protests at the Games is ultimately their choice. 

However, they should be aware they could face repercussions from the IOC, which Team Canada can't help them circumvent. Those repercussions could include having their medal revoked, she said.

"If they choose to break that rule at that point, then there's an element of, you've got to respect that," she said. "You knew the consequence and you did it anyways." 

Athletes may regret staying silent, says Olympian

The fact that protests are prohibited at the podium is what gives that opportunity power, said Angela Whyte, a Canadian hurdler and three-time Olympian. 

"As much as you can say in a press conference, for as much as you can say on social media, a lot of that can be ignored," she told Kelley.

"But this is a moment in time where there's a hush in the crowd and you are visible to the entire world."

Angela Whyte competes in a women's 100-metre hurdles heat during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil. She says there's power in protesting at the podium. (Lee Jin-man/The Associated Press)

She said she believes athletes who have something to say to the world are willing to deal with the consequences that come with that.

"Athletes train their entire lives to reach this moment," said Whyte. 

"And I would expect that if you've come to this point in your life, and if you didn't do it, I feel like athletes would regret it for the rest of their lives."


Written by Kirsten Fenn, with files from CBC Sports/The Associated Press. Produced by Alex Zabjek, Kaity Braidy and Randy Potash.

Hear full episodes of The Current on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

now