The United States Constitution clearly states that church and state are to be separate. Really? High ranking members of all three branches of government are all sworn in by placing their hands on a bible, and each President has ended each of their speeches with “God Bless America.” Does that sound separate to you?
Sports applies a same kind of contradiction. Sports are often used as a method to unity people, en mass, in a time of political and social turmoil, and yet whenever an individual decides to use the platform to take a specific stand, then that person is considered a rogue agent of division and selfishness.
This week, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently unleashed a ruling that athletes at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, will not be allowed to make any political statements of protest during the field of play or on the podium. No kneeling, armbands, hand gestures or signs. Social media is the only platform during the games they can take such stands without disciplinary action.
According to the New York Post, these new regulations were likely brought upon by recent international sporting protests, such as American fencer Race Imboden, who took a knee on the podium while accepting a gold medal at the 2019 Pan-American Games. He later explained via Twitter that his protest was to due to his distaste of American “Racism, Gun Control, mistreatment of immigrants.” Apparently, Imboden violated regulations to refrain from political statements during the games, and was later disciplined. American Hammer thrower Gwen Berry faced similar criticism at the same games for raising her fist on the podium as she received her gold medal.
— Nick Zaccardi (@nzaccardi) August 11, 2019
The IOC explained in a statement that “sport is neutral,” and it was because they don’t want to take attention away from the performances:
“We believe that the example we set by competing with the world’s best while living in harmony in Olympic Village is a uniquely positive message to send to an increasingly divided world. This is why it is important, on both a personal and global level, that we keep the venues, the Olympic Village and the podium neutral and free from any form of political, religious or ethnic demonstrations.”
Well, this is a blatant, predictable example of hypocrisy.
Most obviously, athletic teams divided by country and (flag) color is intrinsically ethnic.
Second of all, sending a “positive message” to an “increasingly divided world” sounds more like sweeping problems under the rug when company is coming over, rather than truly attempting to foster global unity. Part of the latter is honest discourse. How often do we have this many people of so many nations gathered in one place? Seems like this would be a ripe time for such discourse, regardless of the athletic nature of the gathering.
And third, check the history books, and you’ll see that two of the most sacred moments of modern Olympic history are celebrated because of the context of political, religious and racial propaganda. Never mind, I’ll do it for you:
- THE 1936 SUMMER OLYMPICS IN BERLIN, GERMANY
In the literal shadow of the Hindenburg and under the shroud of fascism, Adolf Hitler wanted to show off his “master race” of pure blood, Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Germans and prove their superiority to the entire Earth. Although the home country wound up with the most medals after 16 days, the United States cheered as Black track & field star Jesse Owens sprinted and jumped his way to an astounding four gold medallions. The moment was forever cemented in the American history books. Hitler fought to ban Blacks and Jews from competing prior to the games, so for Owens to handily win his events against the Aryans, it sent a message that the Fuhrer’s fascist regime and rhetoric didn’t carry the merit he thought. Americans of all colors were full of pride for Owens’ efforts. And yet, you’d have to imagine, one of those proud white Americans probably called him a nigger just before got on the plane to Europe. It’s alright for white America to celebrate a Black man when he was an instrument of their own intentions, like proving the Nazis wrongs. Owens was polite, unassuming, and magnanimous. And yet, upon his return home, his still had to ride the back of the bus and drink from “Colored Only” fountains, worked as a gas station attendant and ran a dry cleaning company before going bankrupt. “I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler,” Owens once stated in an interview [Black Race in Motion: Anecdotal Experiences and the Road Ahead; William Anthony Drummond], “but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.” How about that?
2. THE 1980 WINTER OLYMPICS IN LAKE PLACID, NEW YORK, USA
Although the games were taking place in America this time, the United States had to play amid the might of another rival super power, The Soviet Union. This time, socialism was the ethos that diametrically opposed the US capitalist society, and their Russian Hockey team was the symbol of those ideals. This time, a hopeful group of American youngsters were the foils to the seemingly invincible Soviet Hockey players. After losing to them in exhibition play earlier that month, The US team rallied to defeat Russia in the semi-finals, on their way to a gold medal. Now, that moment has been immortalized by documentaries, biopics and highlight reels as the “Miracle on Ice,” for 40 years. Do you really think that Al Michael’s iconic “Do you believe in miracles,” call from the play-by-play booth would’ve meant as much without the sociopolitical backdrop? No.
And were the members of the US Hockey team met with the same indifference and trials that Jesse Owens faced when the Olympics were over? Not a chance. They were named Athlete of the Year by the Associate Press and many of them went on to play in the NHL. Hmm, I wonder why that is…
Now, it’s certainly understandable that political statements can overshadow fantastic physical performances. And that’s alright, sometimes. Little is remembered about the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico, outside of Black American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists to the heavens as they received their gold and bronze medals for the 100 meter dash. This spurned many, causing the IOC to send them back to America before the games were done, with fear that their medals could be relinquished. When interviewed by ABC Sports’ Howard Cossell, he asked Smith, are you proud to be an American? Smith responded immediately, “I’m proud to be a Black American, yes.” That distinction is important. Those fists in the air was a silent protest to indicate to the world that, yes, there is a specific and real difference between being an American and being a Black American. Remember, it was only months prior that country was literally burning to the ground, caused by riots sparked from the brutal assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Atlanta preacher who was a chief orchestrator of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement.
It’s that same distinction that exists today in American professional sports. Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was blackballed from the league after he took a knee during the National Anthem in protest of police brutality. So, is it racial propaganda to think that a Black person’s life matters as much as another’s? Is it political propaganda to think that white law enforcement should be adequately punished and held accountable for killing unarmed Black men and women?
This is all less than 25 years after NBA shooting guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was suspended for also not standing during the National Anthem in 1996. Abdul-Rauf, a Muslim, was quoted by Los Angeles Times that he didn’t stand for the anthem because he believed the flag and anthem was “a symbol of oppression, of tyranny. This country has a long history of that. I don’t think you can argue the facts. You can’t be for God and for oppression.” As a compromise with the league, he would stand, as long as he could perform Islamic prayer during the anthem. He went from the Denver Nuggets’ leading scorer to being traded, benched, then out of the NBA less than two years later. Now, was it religious propaganda to not compromise your beliefs just for the sake of patriotic pageantry and protocol?
Olympic athletes are the best in the world and their commitments to their sports and desire to show off their talents on the world’s largest stage is to be respected, celebrated and honored. Particularly when it comes to how they represent their country with their actions and demeanor during the 16 days of Olympic competition. Having pride for your country and calling it out for not living up to the standards it sets for itself and the rest of the world is not a binary situation. It’s possible, and in my opinion, preferable, for you to be able to do both. For the IOC, the NFL, the NBA to remove, or at best, set strict parameters around protesting during the field of play, it only sends a message that they are advocates of persecution, prejudice and dishonesty. Not indifferent or complicit, but active, willing perpetrators of the discord and death of people of color. The IOC, NFL and NBA is represented by more people of color via its athletes, and yet they don’t want to support issues that would assist the well-being of said athletes. Instead, they choose to worry about public relations and advertisers’ opinions. Always treating the symptom instead of the cause of the infection.
It’s only acceptable to attach politics to sports when the whole country is in peril, be it from Nazis, Socialists or Al Qaeda. Heaven forbid the governing body of a sports league or the rapid fans supporting it, get behind the
demands requests for civil rights of Black Americans; rights that should be basic, instinctive, and immediate. Pride for country sounds nice in a brochure or during a rousing speech, but in reality, patriotism is, and has always been, conditional. So, International Olympic Committee, I ask you these two questions.
What’s more important to you: peace or truth?
And when you say you are trying to illicit harmony and positivity, do you really mean that, or are those words just euphemisms for silence and submission?
Photo Credit: Gary Knght (Attribution License – Flickr Creative Commons)
This post was originally published on The DEF|Y|NE Media Blog.
For more on this topic see:
The Heart of Sports: USA Gold Medal Winning Fencer Kneels: Race Imboden kneels on the medal stand, to speak out on racism, bigotry, gun control, and a President who spreads hate.