Olympians who use position to protest face praise, pressure

Japan 2020

TOKYO (NEXSTAR) — Athletes push themselves under intense pressure for years to make it to the Olympics. Once there, they face a new kind of pressure: whether to use their place on the biggest stage in sports to stand up for issues that matter to them.

“Will they take their newfound celebrity as a gold medalist, where their quotes are now being shared around the world, and will they put that to usage? Is that the time to take an opportunity to share how they feel about specific issues?” NBC Olympics host Mike Tirico said.

The Olympics would prefer they didn’t. Rule 50 in the Olympic charter states that “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

That longstanding rule did not stop Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who in 1968 stood on the podium at the Mexico City Games and raised their fists in the Black power salute.

Athletes Tommie Smith (C) and John Carlos (R) raise their gloved fists in the Black Power salute to express their opposition to racism in the USA during the US national anthem, after receiving their medals 16 October 1968 for first and third place in the men’s 200m event at the Mexico Olympic Games. At left is Peter Norman of Australia who took second place. (Photo by -/EPU/AFP via Getty Images)

“It wasn’t to degrade the flag, it was not to hurt anyone that had a concept of moving forward equally,” Smith said. “It was a pride and joy, cry for freedom through the constitutional efforts that had already been given to us but taken back every day.”

It’s an iconic image now but at the time it caused an uproar. Smith and Carlos were sent home. Smith got death threats. The backlash cost him his marriage and he ultimately became homeless.

Still, he said, he’d do it again.

“Sacrifice is something that a lot of people don’t have the heart for,” he said. “A plethora of people have died so I could be there.”

Fifty-three years later, athletes protest at their own risk. Two-time Olympic hammer thrower Gwen Berry was both scorned and praised for turning her back on the flag during the national them during the trials this year.

“Not all will be pleased with the decisions that all make on how to make their voice heard,” Tirico noted, “but that’s part of the fabric of America. We don’t all agree on everything. But when it’s done properly and with respect, it’s something we should at least pay attention to and listen.”

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