As soccer players take knee, athlete activism begins expected surge at Tokyo Olympics

When play starts at the Tokyo Games on Wednesday, acts of free expression of which athletes were long banned from making at the Olympics will take centre stage.

International Olympic Committee eased restrictions on athlete protest ahead of Games

England coach Phil Neville, middles, addresses his players after their 2019 Women's World Cup semifinal against the U.S. The team has pledged to take a knee before kickoff against Chile at the Olympics to show support for racial justice. (Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP via Getty Images)

Athlete activism is making a comeback at these Olympic Games.

When play started at the Tokyo Games on Wednesday, acts of free expression of the kind athletes were long banned from making at the Olympics took centre stage.

British and Chilean soccer players took a knee before kickoff in their opening match.

The British women kneeled first, followed by their Chilean counterparts at the Sapporo Dome on Wednesday.

They were the first soccer players at the Olympics to perform the anti-racism gesture after the International Olympic Committee relaxed the rules on protests being allowed by the IOC.

"We want to show to everyone this is something serious," Britain defender Demi Stokes said prior to the match. "What a way to do it, on an Olympic stage."

FIFA has approved players taking a knee since some teams started doing it last year, particularly in England, where most of the British players are from.

One hour later in Tokyo, the United States and Sweden should follow in the gesture recognized globally since the murder of George Floyd 14 months ago. The England and Italy men's teams took a knee before the European Championship final this month.

What is common in modern soccer starts a new era for Olympic athletes more than 50 years after the raised black-gloved fists of American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City made them icons and pariahs.

Players take a knee ahead of the 2020 Euro Cup Final between England and Italy at Wembley Stadium on July 11, 2021. (Laurence Griffiths/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Still, it is a limited freedom allowed by the International Olympic Committee, which just this month eased its longstanding ban on all athlete protest inside the Games field of play. The change followed two reviews in 18 months by the IOC's own athletes commission which advised against it.

Gestures are now allowed before races and games start, on the field, and at the start line.

Medal podiums remain off limits for protest, and even the IOC concessions left each sport's governing body free to retain the ban.

Lawyers who study Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter — that banned any kind of "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda" until July 2 — see issues ahead with athletes and the IOC heading on a fast track to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

"I think we can clearly expect some frictions around Rule 50 in the coming weeks," sports law academic Antoine Duval said when hosting a recent debate on the inevitable athlete activism at Tokyo.

FIFA allowing activism on field

FIFA has had a relaxed view on taking a knee since players were inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement last year.

"FIFA believes in freedom of speech and opinion, and this applies to players, coaches, officials and any other person or organization within the scope of FIFA's activities," soccer's world body said in a statement.

Expect raised fists at least on the start line in the main Olympic stadium when track and field events begin on July 30.

World Athletics president Sebastian Coe, a two-time Olympic gold medallist in the 1,500 metres, has gone even further. He put in play medal ceremonies where protest is denied as it was for Smith and Carlos in 1968.

"I've been very clear that if an athlete chooses to take the knee on a podium then I'm supportive of that," Coe said inside Tokyo's National Stadium last October.

Soccer and athletics are the progressive end of the 33 sports governing bodies at these Summer Games.

FINA prohibiting protest on pool deck 

Swimmers' pre-race introductions are similar to track athletes, one by one toward their starting block, but governing body FINA followed the IOC announcement by refusing to allow any gesture that could be viewed as protest.

FINA president Husain al-Musallam spoke of the pool deck "remaining a sanctity for sport and nothing else," where there should be "respect for the greater whole, not the individual."

That stance was at odds with the new Rule 50 guidance yet was defended by IOC president Thomas Bach last week.

"There is not really a 'one size fits all' solution," Bach said when asked about the apparent contradiction of some Olympic athletes having fewer freedoms than others in Tokyo. 

It will fall to the IOC to decide on potential disciplinary cases which it promised to handle "in full transparency."

This could lead to inconsistencies, according to Mark James, who teaches sports law at Manchester Metropolitan University in England.

"There will be flashpoints," James said in the Rule 50 debate hosted by Netherlands-based Asser Institute. "Why are some [gestures] acceptable but some are a breach?"

James anticipated issues over the political intent of flags, and if the more open approach to athlete free speech in Tokyo would survive in China at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

What seems clear is a shift in the social media era of athletes' influence over event organizers and sports bodies.

"It is not just an IOC challenge, this is global sport," said David Grevemberg from the Geneva-based Centre for Sport and Human Rights.

"This is actually, I would say, a crossroads for all sport." 

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