U.S. Athletes’ Letter on IOC Rule 50: ‘We Will No Longer Be Silenced’

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Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

A group of American athletes, led by 1968 Olympian John Carlos, Saturday published a letter to the International Olympic Committee and International Paralympic Committee urging the abolition of IOC Charter Rule 50.

The letter was sent on behalf of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee Athletes’ Advisory Council (USOPC AAC). It urges the IOC to scrap Rule 50, which bars political protests by athletes at official Olympic ceremonies, and replace it with new guidelines developed “in direct collaboration with independent, worldwide athlete representatives that protects athletes’ freedom of expression.”

From the letter:

We are now at a crossroads. The IOC and IPC cannot continue on the path of punishing or removing athletes who speak up for what they believe in, especially when those beliefs exemplify the goals of Olympism. Instead, sports administrators must begin the responsible task of transparent collaboration with athletes and athlete groups (including independent athlete groups) to reshape the future of athlete expression at the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Let us work together to create a new structure that celebrates athletes who speak about issues in alignment with human rights and the 7 principles of Olympism.

Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter purports to “protect the neutrality of sport and the Olympic Games” by forbidding protests and demonstrations on the field of competition, the Olympic Village and all official ceremonies (opening, closing, medal, etc.) It enumerates such banned protests and including:

  • Displaying any political messaging, including signs or armbands
  • Gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling
  • Refusal to follow the Ceremonies protocol

READ: Anthony Ervin on Olympic Rule 50: ‘That’s Not Going to Fly’

Signatories to Saturday’s letter include Carlos, who along with fellow American sprinter Tommie Smith raised his fist on the podium of the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Olympics after having won the bronze medal. Carlos and Smith, who for their protest earned decades of condemnation and reprisals, are seen as forerunners of the current athlete activism protesting, among other things, systemic racism and structural inequalities.

Also signing the letter were Han Xiao, a table tennis player and the USOPC AAC chair; fencer Cody Mattern, the vice-chair; bobsledder Bree Schaaf, the second vice-chair; Moushaumi Robinson, a track and field athlete; para-cyclist Sam Cavanaugh; and rower Nick LaCava. (The latter three are at-large leaders of the USOPC AAC.)

READ: German Athletes Welcome Bach Readiness To Relax Rule 50 & Allow Peaceful Protest

Schaaf is also involved with Global Athlete, a coalition of athletes across the world, that earlier this month called for the repeal of IOC Rule 50. The stance from athletes is the Rule 50 infringes on their rights to self-expression, particularly at the height of their athletic accomplishments when presented with a rare level of public visibility. To deny that via Rule 50, athletes argue, amounts to the IOC and IPC undercutting their message of inspiring change through sports.

Freedom of expression is recognized as a fundamental human right by the United Nations because it is essential to societal and individual well-being. Aligning with such principles will allow athletes to give the world hope beyond sport- hope that voices matter and are a powerful tool for change.

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40 comments

  1. Mike Mcgowan

    I’m just going to make a simple statement. I absolutely don’t agree with this.

  2. avatar
    Rolf

    Although I admire John Carlos and Tommie Smith for what they did in 1968, I think it’s not so easy. We all welcome athletes who speak up for human rights and against discrimination. But if the IOC allows political statements, what about more controversial statements? Is the IOC acting as a censor who decides which statement is acceptable and which one isn’t? An example (not from the Olympics): During the 2018 FIFA Men’s Soccer World Coup, two Swiss players (of Kosovar descendant) formed a nationalist sign with their hands insulting Serbians. Is this freedom of speech? During a soccer match?
    This said, I’m not totally opposed to change Rule 50, but we should be very careful about that. I think nobody wants to turn the Olympics or other sport events into an ideological battleground.

    • avatar
      Craig Lord - Swimming World Editor-in-Chief

      Rolf, you make good points. A rewriting of Rule 50 and handing over judgment of issues to a (genuinely) independent integrity unit is a compromise that athletes may need to consider. You ask if the IOC is acting as a censor and judge. Answer: yes. The IOC is steeped in politics – and judging others for their stances on various matters simply entrenches the uneasy position the IOC has placed itself in.

  3. Connie Wolf Shaw

    Olympians are proudly there representing their country, if not, they should not take on the role to represent. Keep this rule in place. It is too slippery of a slope to ruin everyone else’s title of Olympian.

    • avatar
      Craig Lord - Swimming World Editor-in-Chief

      The rule needs reforming and updating and an independent integrity unit should judge the merit of cases, not the IOC: for the IOC to judge would also be for it to act politically. It needs taking out of their hands. On ‘representing their country’ – really? So, wearing a t-shirt with ‘black lives matter’ as a refrain many many many thousands of athletes the world over agreed with is anti-national-flag? How?; calling for clean sport is anti-national flag? How? There are so many reasons why this has got nothing to do with representing your country nor flying a flag. Athletes from Germany in 1936 represented their country; the IOC was happy to have its Games bedecked in swastikas and it all sailed on a sea of Nazi salutes – but some athletes managed to befriend Jesse Owens, made their feelings known … and that needed to take place at that moment in that place at that very time … not sometime after the fact… So, were they wrong? It is just so much more complex than ‘Obey Rule 50’.
      Autonomy of the Games has been a failure, hence awards to Putin, the regime in Qatar and many others and much else that ought to have been kept at more than arm’s length from honour in the Olympic Movement and a sports realm that is highly, highly political. It’s a real where the judges are weak or fail to act when it comes to judging themselves or letting others judge them.
      One rule for athletes should mean one rule for all in the Movement. Time for change. To protest in the way Horton and Scott did again a repeat anti-doping problem unresolved could never be seen as “ruining” someone else’s title; to speak out as Shirley Babashoff did in 1976 only to find her own officials and media telling her to shut up, regardless of the fact that she was right represents a wrong; for athletes to show solidarity with those suffering discrimination is reasonable in all realms of life, so why not the Olympics? No athlete is expecting to play party, national or even global politics here: they simply want to raise the issues that, em masse, they want changed, for the good of all.

    • Kristine Murphy Grim

      Connie Wolf Shaw except when the President of the US uses politics to forbid them from competing. 🤣🤣 Hypocrisy.

    • Connie Wolf Shaw

      Kristine Murphy Grim The Olympics this summer were delayed a year bc of a pandemic not a President. It was a global decision.

    • avatar
      Craig Lord - Swimming World Editor-in-Chief

      Which is precisely how it doesn’t happen when it comes to doping and much else. Rules, interpretation of rules in an autonomous bubble is a part of the problem. Stick to the rules but if you’re an abuse victim of State Plan 14:25, or a victim of the same on the other side of the coin, hard luck; if you have to race a known doper, tough; etc etc etc. Citing ‘rules or get out” works only for those who never have to face the consequences of poor governance and bad culture at the heart of an Olympic Movement in need of widespread reform of its structures, including the checks and balances of accountability that are all too often only present for the athlete not for the official.

  4. Jim Nealis

    I just ask this – who gets to decide what issue an athlete can protest about? If one athlete can stand and say “End racism – it is unfair”, can another stand and say “End abortion – it kills babies”? Once you open this can of worms you will never get the lid back on. Keep social/political protests OUT of the Games!

    • Brandon Risley

      Jim Nealis your right they don’t get to decide.
      This is not a political issue. If the athletes want to protest they absolutely have the right to

    • Jennifer Brurok

      Jim Nealis ABSOLUTELY!!! I dare them to allow protesting of one kind and not allow others to protest the murder of innocent unborn babies!!!

    • Brandon Risley

      Jennifer Brurok i will, cause it’s not.
      Protesting racism is fighting for human rights. Protesting abortion is fighting against human rights.

    • Jennifer Brurok

      Brandon Risley not according to my God, so you just have your opinion and I will have mine. Blessings.

    • Brandon Risley

      Jennifer Brurok god isn’t real and religion does not make laws. Try again

    • Kristine Murphy Grim

      Jennifer Brurok your God has absolutely nothing to do with Sport and expressly nothing to do with politics, “separation of church and state.” Shhhh.

    • Brandon Risley

      Staci Hollingsworth Roberson human rights is not a political issue

      • avatar
        Lucas

        I protest your wanting to protest at the games.
        Really, does protesting at the games solve anything?
        Stop watching the news media and let’s just get along. That’s a real solution, no?

      • avatar
        Craig Lord - Swimming World Editor-in-Chief

        Lucas, no, it’s no solution at all. In fact, it could be seen to be highly naive – and does not reflect what athletes want. It is not about ‘watching the news media’, nor about attempting to interfere in global politics per se: it’s about the ability to express their views freely – and yes, on women’s rights, discrimination and much else because those things are a part of the Olympic realm just as they are a part of the wider world – and they have an impact on the lives of athletes. Athletes are seeking the ability to have their voices heard on issues beyond ‘how was your backhand’, ‘how many breaths did you take’, ‘what’s your favourite lunch’, ‘can you swim butterfly too’ and so forth. Athlete voices, just as it is with the voices of artists and actors and singers and rock bands and scientists and many others, can help improve not only their own lot by improving the way Olympic business is conducted, with all the problems associated with that down the years, but the lot of many others. Peaceful protests in which athletes highlight issues by standing together as one can indeed force change, betterment, in a way and at a pace far beyond any number of decades of relying on delegates to raise the issues for them. Fact: decade-old issues have not been resolved because the structures of the Olympic Movement are built to avoid having to consider the views of athletes and many others and insisting on the Games living in a bubble of autonomy. The mistakes of Berlin 1936, the commercialisation of the Games without the benefits having been shared fairly with athletes, the fact that 20 years of State Doping in the GDR and a vast library of evidence, names, dosages and much else remains the official result of Olympic Sports whose promoters boast a commitment to clean sport, without ever once attempting to engage with reconciliation processes that date back to many years of harm done… and on and on… the Games will change, time alone will make it so… much better for betterment to come hand in hand with the views and voices of athletes prepared to look out into the world and reinforce the Olympic Charter that forbids discrimination, for example. Yes, protest creates challenge and some of that may well be uncomfortable but when the boos and jeers reigned down from the stands at Rio 2016 every time certain doing positives walked out for action, it send a clear message to the promoters of sport that they have let the ball drop on clean sport, and that – not athlete protest – is the bigger threat to the reputation and standing of the Games. Moreover – The IOC’s Athletes’ Rights and Responsibilities Declaration adopted in 2018 includes: 11. Freedom of expression. What is to be decided is what that actually means – and what athletes want it to mean.

    • Brandon Risley there is a time and a place for everything. On the podium during the Olympics does not fit either of those categories.

      • avatar
        Craig Lord - Swimming World Editor-in-Chief

        Athletes feel differently, Staci – and it’s their platform, not ours. We’re just the spectators, observers, commentators. It is not you nor I who have to line up in a lane next to a known doper; it is not you nor I who has to live for decades with hardly anyone knowing of the efforts and collective toil and tears of years that goes into that bronze medal that would have been gold had it not been for the two state-doped swimmers ahead of you; it is not you nor I whose work place earns them nothing (swimming is not a sport of young teens anymore but a professional realm in which athletes want to and have a right to earn a living wage and have insurance and so forth, the stuff people take for granted in other realms); it is not you nor I but Enith Brigitha who would have gone down as the first black swimmer to win Olympic gold had it not been for the blind eye of Guardians. If athletes feel that their biggest moment of exposure is not the place to stage peaceful protest, that’s a matter for them. The rest of us may have a say, while knowing that our word counts for less on that matter, as it should – just as you having a say in your workplace is more a matter for you not them. Collectively, however, issues of equity are to the good of all – and all, therefore, have a right to protest where and when they see the opportunity arise in a way that creates the best chance for change.

    • Brandon Risley

      Staci Hollingsworth Roberson does 1968 mean nothing to you?
      You just don’t want them to protest because you disagree with their message.
      They have a right to protest whenever and however they want.
      You want it to stop, end racism

  5. Paul Anthony

    Stay strong IOC! We watch sports to get away from politics.

    • Brandon Risley

      Paul Anthony this is not a political issue, it’s a human issue. Quit silencing athletes because of your racist beliefs.

    • Paul Anthony

      Brandon Risley Clearly you are too stupid to know what the word “political” or “racist” means.

  6. Brendan Smith

    Olympic sport is to keep politics out of sport. It’s failed before, but these rules are in place to separate the athletes from politicians.

  7. Donald P. Spellman

    BLM and politics matter……even at the Olympic Games.
    *BTW: Almost HALF of the IOC delegates are political appointed figures and many of them are corrupt too. The hypocrisy is stunning.

  8. Kimberly O

    The athletes are there to compete on behalf of their country. It’s political to start with.

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