Activist athletes: Patriotism ≠ Free speech?
Athletes, for years now, have used international sports platforms to highlight important issues like racism and inequality. Every time this happens the world gets divided. Is using a platform where you represent your country the right place to talk about the issues in your country?
This question came up again last week when Athlete Gwen Berry decided to turn away from her national anthem.
Who is Gwen Berry?
On June 26, in the US Olympic trials in Eugene, Gwen Berry, a hammer thrower, won the third position, earning herself a place in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.
Later, on the podium, she turned her back on the US flag while the national anthem played during a medal ceremony and placed her t-shirt, which read “Activist Athlete,” over her head.
“It was a setup”
Berry was placed on probation for a year by the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) after she raised her fist on the podium at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru in 2019. Hence, she believes that it was a setup to have her on the podium while the anthem played.
However, the USA Track and Field (USATF) said that the anthem was arranged to be played every day at the trials based on a predetermined schedule.
What is Berry’s reason for protest?
The US National Anthem makes her uncomfortable because of its history. Berry said, “History. If you know your history, you know the full song of the national anthem. The third paragraph speaks to slaves in America — our blood being slain all over the floor. It’s disrespectful and it does not speak for Black Americans.”
Rule against protest
Protests are banned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), but the USOPC began permitting demonstrations during trials in 2021. The USOPC had also apologized to Berry last year for her 2019 probation before it changed its rules surrounding protests. So if the rule of USOPC allows Berry’s action, what is the problem?
Following her protest of the anthem, Berry drew backlash from a lot of Republican conservative voices. While US politicians, Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton, questioned her love for the country, Texas congressman Dan Crenshaw said that Berry should be removed from the team. The sentiment of the conservative leaders is that the USA does not need any “Activist Athletes”.
Throwback to the 1986 “Black Power Salute”
The story of activism by athletes on public forums is not new. During the 1968 Summer Olympics, two African-American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised black-gloved fists during the US national anthem to protest the living condition of the minorities. The world took notice and the event made its way into the history books.
From 1968 to date, a lot may have changed but the debate around activism by athletes during international events like Olympics remains.
On one hand, there are people who strongly believe that forums like these should allow for peaceful protests to draw international attention to the issues back in their home countries. On the other hand, there are people who believe that respect for one’s country is strongly symbolised by how one treats the national anthem or the flag of their country.
Although symbols like the national flag and the national anthem play a huge role in bringing a country together by giving the people something common to identify themselves with, the very idea of free speech is under question if democracy does not allow for an opinion to be expressed peacefully.
Suppressing a voice that is raising concern and questioning a long-standing tradition, cannot be justified, not even in the name of patriotism.