Do Black Lives Matter protests belong at the Olympic Games?

A Reuters/Ipsos poll found a majority of Americans don't want to see athletes express their political views at the Games. Will that stop Olympians from speaking out like Tommie Smith and John Carlos did nearly 50 years ago?

Silvia Izquierdo/AP
A police officer stands in front a banner that reads in Portuguese: 'Racism is useful to arrest, judge, torture and kill' during a demonstration against racism and police violence in Rio de Janeiro on July 20.

Is there room for Black Lives Matter at the Olympics?

No, according to a majority of Americans.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released just five days before the start of the Games found 65 percent of Americans, whether they identify as white or belonging to a racial minority, feel Olympic athletes should not express their political views in Rio de Janeiro.

Monday’s poll results come as mainstream American sports have become a venue for the Black Lives Matter movement. While star basketball players including LeBron James and Derrick Rose have brought the issues of race relations and police misconduct to the court, the poll shows most Americans don’t want to see Olympians take part in it, just as much as they didn’t want to see the two American Olympic sprinters raise their fists to salute Black Power nearly 50 years ago.

Asked if Olympic athletes should express their political views, 65 percent of respondents said no; 24 percent said yes, if athletes want to. Fifty-two percent of respondents from racial minorities agreed athletes should not express their political views, while about a third said athletes should be able to if they wish.

3,015 people responded in the online poll over July 22-26.  

The poll comes after Black Lives Matter has already made its way to Rio. Six American activists from the movement joined 200 local activists July 23 to march through the central part of the city, protesting police brutality and racial profiling, much like the movement in the United States protests.

To many Black Lives Matter activists, however, Rio is an ideal location for protests of police violence, as Brazil struggles with similar clashes between its black and mixed race community and police.

The South American nation is currently in the grips of deep recession, and reports of soaring unemployment and shortfalls in its state security budget are exacerbating tensions. 

Economic problems have only compounded longstanding conflicts between Brazil’s black and mixed race community and police. Of the 200 million people who live in Brazil, a majority identify as black or mixed race. Those with darker skin, however, experience socio-economic constraints and higher rates of conflict with police, according to Reuters. In fact, a recent report by Human Rights Watch found Brazilian police over the past decade have killed more than 8,000 people in the state of Rio, three-quarters of whom were black males.

Through May, the latest month for which state security statistics are available, 322 people died in conflicts with Rio police, an increase of 5.6 percent compared with 2015.

Those statistics resonate with American Black Lives Matter activists who last month marched alongside Brazilian protesters ahead of the Olympic Games.

"The most important thing that we can do is build together and mobilize our people to spread the word," Daunasia Yancey, a Boston-based Black Lives Matter activist, told Reuters, noting what she called "astronomical" death rates among blacks in conflicts with police in Brazil.

For many viewers however, the Olympic Games are a time for nations to set aside political strife in celebration of human achievement.

Yet, the Olympics have long been a venue for political activism. One of the most iconic examples came in 1968 when gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos, two African-Americans, raised their firsts in the air on the podium at the Summer Games in Mexico City. Mr. Smith and Mr. Carlos were then suspended from the US team, and banned from the Olympic village.

Mainstream American sports have become a venue for the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years, particularly after the death of Eric Garner while he was in police custody in 2014. Basketball and football stars, including Mr. Rose, Reggie Bush, and Mr.  James wore black warm up T-shirts with the phrase, "I can't breathe."

Michael Jordan, one of basketball’s greatest stars, broke his lifelong silence on social issues this past month, calling for police reforms and the need to support and respect police officers.

Although the National Basketball Association (NBA) has been cautiously receptive of its players’ activism, its counterpart in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) initially was not. The league fined players from several teams who wore warmup t-shirts about the Black Lives Matter movement last month, saying the shirts violated its uniform guidelines. The WNBA revoked those fines after its players called for a media blackout.

This report contains material from Reuters.

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