Feb 9, 2021 - World

Olympic panel to review athlete activism rules ahead of controversial Beijing games

Illustration of athletes at Beijing Olympics

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With athlete activism on the rise, and protest guidelines in flux, Olympians could play a larger role than ever in shaping the narrative around the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics — which have come under heavy scrutiny due to China's human rights abuses.

The state of play: The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee announced in December that it would no longer prohibit athletes from "peacefully and respectfully demonstrating in support of racial and social justice for all human beings."

  • This goes against Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which prohibits athletes from demonstrating in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas (but not in press conferences, team meetings or via media).
  • In response to the USOPC's decision, the IOC — which controls all 206 National Olympic Committees — is now reviewing Rule 50, with an announcement expected in the next few months.

What they're saying: "The IOC Athletes' Commission has launched a dialogue with the athletes' representatives of the world ... to explore different ways of how Olympic athletes can express their support for the principles enshrined in the Olympic Charter ... whilst respecting the Olympic spirit," the IOC told Axios in a statement.

Olympians kneeling
American fencer Race Imboden kneels during the medal ceremony at the 2019 Pan American Games. Photo: Leonardo Fernandez/Getty Images

The backdrop: The USOPC placed fencer Race Imboden and hammer thrower Gwen Berry on probation after they knelt and raised a fist during their medal ceremonies at the 2019 Pan American Games. It has since apologized.

  • The IOC can bar athletes from the Games or strip them of their medals for protesting, though NOCs have historically doled out the punishments.
  • When Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously raised their fists at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, the USOPC — not the IOC — expelled them.

The bottom line: The nationwide protests last summer saw athletes speak out in new ways, and caused a chain reaction that is now playing out internationally — just in time for back-to-back Olympics in Tokyo and Beijing.

Go deeper: Boycott threat clouds 2022 Beijing Olympics

Go deeper