When athletes become activists

How do you have the Olympics and activism? The pressure for change is significant, and the way forward might be in the athletes themselves.

Sprinters Larry Questad, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos (left to right) each won a medal in their event at the 1968 Olympics. Smith and Carlos raised black-gloved fists to protest racial injustice during the ceremony.

“Republicans buy sneakers, too.” 

Growing up as a sports fan in the 1980s and 1990s, I expected sports to operate under that rule. The quote comes from Michael Jordan, and it was spoken in connection with a 1990 United States Senate race. Why, Mr. Jordan was asked, was he not endorsing Democrat Harvey Gantt – potentially the South’s first Black senator since Reconstruction – over Republican Jesse Helms, who had supported segregation? 

Mr. Jordan’s sentiment made perfect sense. He was the most powerful brand in sports – perhaps ever – and to speak out was to put that in jeopardy. Would McDonald’s still want him to sell Big Macs if he became a political lightning rod? Republicans buy Big Macs, too.

The statement came to represent more than just one man’s brand empire. It came to characterize an entire era. The overt politics of Muhammad Ali or the raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics were part of a bygone era. Athletes were paid to play, not play politics. 

But today, taking a stand is almost expected. Four years after the National Football League essentially blacklisted quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem, Commissioner Roger Goodell has said “black lives matter” and players and coaches are openly considering kneeling during the national anthem this season. The National Basketball Association, which discouraged Black activism in the 1980s to avoid offending white fans, is now considering letting players wear social justice statements on their jerseys instead of names. NASCAR has banned the Confederate battle flag. And even across the Atlantic, before the start of every British Premier League soccer game, all players take a knee to support racial equality. Some Black players raise their fists as Smith and Carlos did 52 years ago.

The world has changed.

It’s not surprising that the Olympics would be one of the last sporting organizations to imbibe that change, as Christa Case Bryant chronicles in this week’s cover story. And the reasons aren’t only cynical. Yes, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) too often acts like its own fiefdom, jealously guarding its corporate sponsorships and television rights. Yet in the seven Olympic Games I covered, the core Olympic ideals felt real. More than any other sporting event I’ve covered, the Olympics exude a genuine sense of fellowship and goodwill.

So how do you have the Olympics and activism? The pressure for change is significant. The U.S. Athletes’ Advisory Council wants to abolish IOC Rule 50, which bans demonstrations and “political, religious or racial propaganda.” “In today’s polarized political environment, staying neutral is nearly as controversial as taking sides was in the early ’90s,” notes an article in Vulture.

The way forward might be in the athletes themselves. If the IOC expression of the Olympic spirit can often seem corporate, the athletes’ expression comes from living the ideals. Giving the athletes more say in how they want to strike that balance is not to take a risk, but to put the Olympic flame in the surest hands to carry it forward.

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