The Olympic games are one of the biggest platforms that anyone can have. For athletes, the global scale of the games makes it the best opportunity to bring attention to a cause.
Olympic protests and activism are not new. While it has previously not been permitted, activism of all types have been a regular part of Olympic games. A famous example is the 1906 Olympic games, where an Irish athlete replaced the flag of Great Britain with the Irish Flag.
The Tokyo 2020 games mark the first games that allow activism and protests. There are still limits, however. The International Olympic Committee released guidelines to follow for the athletes who wish to protest. Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter now states that athletes can only protest prior to the event or by discussing their causes during media interviews. Significantly, protests on the podium are not allowed.
With the world’s eyes on them, athletes used this freedom to bring attention to causes they support. While some followed the rules, others decided to protest their issues how they saw fit. Here are all of the cases of Olympian activists from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics:
Women’s soccer players standing against racism
Following the new set rules, the Great Britain and Chilean women’s soccer teams took a knee on the field to stand against racism at the Olympics. This action was later followed by the American and Swedish team. The athletes followed the new rule of protesting prior to the event by protesting just before kickoff.
The teams stated that they wanted to use the Olympic global stage for good and bring attention to issues of racism that are still alive today. They wanted to show support for people who are discriminated against and support the fight for a more equal world.
The Australian team even posed with the Aboriginal flag instead of the Australian flag before their match against New Zealand, again supporting the no racism cause. They showed unity within the team and made sure everyone felt like they were being represented.
Protesting the sexualization of women’s athletic wear
Norway’s women’s beach handball team broke uniform rules during their final game and wore shorts instead of the regulation bikini bottom. The ladies decided that they were more comfortable wearing something with more coverage. They wore the shorts despite being warned against it.
Each player was fined 150 Euros. The women said that no one should be excluded from a sport because they are uncomfortable in bikini bottoms. Many people supported their protest, including the artist Pink, who offered to pay the fine for the team and tweeted that she was very proud of them for protesting sexist rules about their uniform.
Norway was not alone in choosing less revealing uniforms for their sport. The Germany women’s gymnasts team decided on full leotards instead of wearing suits that reveal arms and legs. The team spoke about the suites being their way to protest the sexualization’s of the sport
For Germany, the uniform change did not break any rules, and it supports the idea that athletes should be able to compete in what they are most comfortable in. Norway hopes to see a change in the rules for next summer allowing them to also play their sport comfortably.
“X” symbolism and rule breaking
Raven Saunders won silver for the U.S. in women’s shot put, and threw her hands up to form an “X” while on the podium. She explained that the “X” is a symbol of intersection between all oppressed people. As a member of the black community, the LGBTQA+ community, and someone who has struggled with mental health, Saunders wanted to be a role model. She wanted to represent the power that these groups have and stand with them.
This powerful display went directly against the new rules forbidding podium protests. The act is being looked into and so far no punishment has been given. Saunders made it clear that she was not worried about a punishment since she did what she thought was right.
The “X” was also seen drawn on the hand of U.S. fencer Race Imboden while he received bronze on the podium. He stated that his “X” was there to protest rule 50 not allowing activism or political gestures on the podiums. He further explained on Instagram that the “X” also has the same symbolism as Saunders’s gesture did, and that it symbolizes the unity of the oppressed.
Athletes speaking up for mental health
Simone Biles, a U.S. gymnast and Olympic star, withdrew from many of the events she had planned to be in this year. She joined her team in only vault, and pulled out of the team final as well as the all-around competition. Biles said that she did this to protect her mental health. It is no question that training for and participating in the Olympics is stressful, and pressure for Biles was too much for her to handle.
Biles showed great strength in being able to know her limits and not push herself to her breaking point. She spoke about how it is important to put your own health first. Putting herself and her needs first over an Olympic medal resonated with many.
Her decision sparked global conversations about destigmatizing mental health and helped other athletes feel less alone in their mental struggles. Other athletes felt impowered to come forward about their struggles after Biles did, including skateboarder Nyjah Huston, swimmer Simone Manuel, and many more.
It is hoped that future Olympics may start to see mental health ambassadors and more accessible health resources for athletes.
Canadian rugby supporting Indigenous rights
The Canadian women’s rugby team had a more subtle protest during their games. All members of the team chose to wear something orange while on the field. From wristbands to hair ties, the athletes all used the orange to show their solidarity with Indigenous Canadians.
The colour orange has become the representative colour of justice and reconciliation for Indigenous people of Canada. It brings attention to the tragedies of Canadian residential schools and the abused and murdered children. Many viewers took to social media to applaud the women for protesting despite the rules not allowing protests during games.
The team later showed up to a press conference wearing shirts saying “BIPOC Lives Matter” and masks reading “Every Child Matters”. The used the time to discuss colonialism and Indigenous rights. They stated the importance in acknowledging the truth about the abuse done to Indigenous people in the past and today.
Raised fist for BLM
Luciana Alvarado, a Costa Rican gymnast, ended her floor routine with a raised fist. This motion was a choreographed part of her routine, and supported the Black Lives Matter movement. She wished to highlight the importance of treating everyone with the respect they deserve and because everyone is “beautiful and amazing”.
Despite protests not being allowed during events, Alvarado will not face any punishment. This is because the gesture was used as an artistic part of the routine and was not seen as a separate protest.