Sports·The Buzzer

The Olympics' Rule 50 debate isn't over

CBC Sports' daily newsletter looks at the new tweaks to the IOC's athlete-protest ban and why the issue is far from resolved.

Minor tweaks to the IOC's athlete-protest ban don't resolve the issue

Rule 50 of the Olympic charter is designed to stop displays like this from occurring on the medal stand and other high-visibility areas during the Olympics. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

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The Olympics' Rule 50 is back in the spotlight

Yesterday — the day after former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in the death of George Floyd — the International Olympic Committee approved some tweaks to Rule 50 of the Olympic charter. That's the one that contains the clause saying "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

Back in January 2020, the IOC beefed up the rule (or provided "clarity," to use its word) by specifying that athletes are not allowed to protest "on the field of play, at the Olympic Village or during the official ceremonies" — including opening, closing, medal and "other official" ceremonies. Examples of prohibited protest behaviour were provided, including "displaying any political messaging, including signs or armbands" and "gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling." The IOC said that athletes who wished to "express their views" (the IOC considers this different than "protesting") may do so during media interviews, press conferences and team meetings, and on social media and "other platforms," as long as they "comply with local legislation."

Without actually saying it, the IOC made its stance pretty clear: it doesn't want another John Carlos/Tommie Smith moment, or a medallist kneeling during their national anthem a la Colin Kaepernick. Nor does it want any protests on its other brightest stages — the ceremonies and the field of play.

Since then, a lot has changed. The brutal cellphone video showing Chauvin killing Floyd on May 26, 2020 sparked a wave of demonstrations against police violence and racial discrimination that washed over the United States, spread to other countries and even upended pro sports. Last August, North America's top leagues shut down for a couple of days after the Milwaukee Bucks walked out of an NBA playoff game in protest of the police shooting of another Black man, Jacob Blake. Kneeling during the national anthem and speaking out on social-justice issues are now largely league-approved — and have become almost commonplace in the NBA and NFL.

Given that we've clearly entered a new era of athlete activism, some hoped the IOC would drop Rule 50 and allow athletes full freedom to express themselves at this summer's Tokyo Olympics. But that didn't happen. Instead, the IOC rubber-stamped a suite of minor updates recommended by its Athletes' Commission, which spent the last 11 months drafting them. The biggest (relatively speaking) are that athletes be allowed to engage in a "moment of solidarity against discrimination" during the opening ceremony, and to wear clothing with anodyne words like peace, respect, solidarity, inclusion and equality that express Olympic "values."

Crucially, though, the podium and the field of play — the two most visible platforms (one of them a literal platform) for athletes looking to send a message — remain no-protest zones. Raising a fist, kneeling or engaging in any other kind of protest-adjacent activity there is still prohibited. And the modest new allowances for the opening ceremony don't really give athletes much room to maneuvre. The IOC still hasn't decided exactly how someone who breaks the rules will be punished, but Athletes' Commission chair Kirsty Coventry said "proportionate" measures will be drawn up before Tokyo.

This puts the IOC somewhat at odds with the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which has said it won't punish athletes who protest at the U.S. trials and will allow them to put the words "Black Lives Matter" on their clothing. Whatever the IOC's rules say, and whatever punishments it eventually decides on, it seems likely that an American athlete will perform some kind of protest on the medal stand or on the field of play in Tokyo.

The Canadian Olympic Committee has taken a more conservative approach. Back in September, its Athletes' Commission put forth some pretty middle-of-the-road ideas for modifying Rule 50. The most notable was the creation of neutral, protected spaces for peaceful demonstrations at the Olympics. Commission chair Oluseyi Smith said the consensus in the group was that protests shouldn't interfere with competition, but there was little agreement on whether they should be allowed on the medal stand or during the opening and closing ceremonies.

At the moment, the IOC has a bigger fish to fry. The coronavirus is bearing down on many countries, including the one that's supposed to host the Olympics in three months. But, assuming the Tokyo Games go ahead, Rule 50 and the broader debate around athlete protests at the Olympics could become the IOC's most pressing issue come July. Read more about the decision to uphold Rule 50 here, and about two groups offering legal support to protesting Olympic athletes here.

This is an iconic moment in Olympic history. But the IOC doesn't want it happening again. (The Associated Press)

Quickly...

Another star golfer is skipping the Olympics. 2013 Masters champion and former world No. 1 Adam Scott has decided to pass on the Tokyo Games to spend more time with his family, according to his manager. The 40-year-old Australian, who's now ranked 35th in the world, also pulled out of the 2016 Rio Olympics, citing concerns over the Zika virus. Last month, current No. 1 Dustin Johnson took himself out of consideration for the U.S. Olympic team. Read more about Scott's withdrawal here.

Felix Auger-Aliassime got the upper hand on Denis Shapovalov. Auger-Aliassime's straight-sets win today on clay at the Barcelona Open gave him a 3-2 edge over his fellow Canadian in their career head-to-head matches at the top level of the ATP Tour. Auger-Aliassime, who's seeded 10th at the French Open warmup event, next faces No. 2 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarter-finals on Friday. Read more about the Felix-Shapo match and watch highlights here.

And finally…

Curlers sometimes say bad words. Anyone who's sat close to the action can tell you that F-bombs get dropped pretty regularly in professional sports. They don't often make it on the broadcast, but curlers are more susceptible to saying the seven words you can't say on TV on TV because of the hot mics they wear during games. Also, the major curling broadcasters don't use a delay, which is common practice in many other sports. That's led to viewers hearing a few naughty things from the Calgary curling bubble over the past few months. The odd swear word can be funny, but too many might be bad for business. Read more in this story by the Canadian Press' Gregory Strong.

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