Aug 3, 2021 - Sports

Raven Saunders: U.S. athletes planned "X" protests "for weeks"

Raven Saunders of Team United States makes an 'X' gesture during the medal ceremony for the Women's Shot Put on day nine of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
Team USA's Raven Saunders makes an "X'" gesture during the medal ceremony for the women's shot put at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, on Sunday. Photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Raven Saunders, the American Olympian facing a possible investigation for making a protest gesture on the podium over the weekend, told the New York Times Monday that U.S. athletes had planned "for weeks" to demonstrate against oppression.

Why it matters: Protests are banned at the Tokyo Games. Saunders told the NYT a group of American Olympians had settled on the "X" symbol, which she gestured on the podium after winning silver in the shot put Sunday, to represent "unity with oppressed people."

  • An International Olympic Committee official said the IOC is "looking into" Saunders' podium gesture.

Driving the news: American fencing bronze medalist Race Imboden had an "X" displayed on his right hand during the medal ceremony for the foil competition on Sunday. He shared an image of this in an Instagram story.

  • Imboden was placed on probation by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee in 2019, along with hammer thrower Gwen Berry, after they knelt and raised a fist during their medal ceremonies at the 2019 Pan American Games — action for which the USOPC later apologized.
  • Berry, who was defended by the White House last month for her right to protest peacefully after turning her back while the national anthem was played during a ceremony, also plans to demonstrate at the Olympics.
  • She told reporters Sunday she would "represent the oppressed people" if she reaches the podium in her event, saying: "That's been my message for the last three years."

Between the lines: The IOC has relaxed its rules governing protests since 2020's global racial reckoning, Axios' Jeff Tracy writes. It now allows for athletes to "express their views" more freely.

Yes, but: "The I.O.C. and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee have conflicting rules and views regarding the exercise of free speech during the Games, and even how penalties should be meted out," the NYT notes.

  • Protests are banned on the podium and in competitions, and the IOC stressed Sunday that national committees should punish athletes.
  • U.S. officials have said they won't act if an athlete is "exercising the right to free speech that does not express hatred," per the Times.

Of note: Saunders told reporters she made her protest during a photoshoot following the medals ceremony and after China's national anthem was played for gold medal winner Gong Lijiao because she "wanted to be respectful."

Go deeper: Full Axios Olympics coverage

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