The Olympics is Failing in the Fight for Racial Justice

While some leagues are choosing to lean into racial progress and equity, the International Olympics Committee is deciding to ignore the greatest civil rights movement during the last fifty years for the sake of… well, we’re not really sure. 

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others sparked international outrage and solidarity, spurring protests against police violence, inequality, and racial discrimination worldwide. The Olympics choosing to willfully ignore these movements in order to proceed with “life as usual” is as callous to the lives lost and oppressed populations still fighting for their humanity as it is tone-deaf to the current moment in which all athletes find themselves. 

The IOC Rule 50 guidelines states that “the focus at the Olympic Games must remain on athletes’ performances, sport and the international unity and harmony that the Olympic Movement seeks to advance” and that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” 

Examples of what’s considered a protest include the following items among others:

  • Displaying any political messaging, including signs or armbands 
  • Gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling 
  • Refusal to follow the Ceremonies protocol

At the end of the statement, the IOC finishes off their All Lives Matter diatribe with a dog-whistle that would make the entire America First caucus proud. “In conclusion,” it reads, “these guidelines have been developed with the aim that each and every one of you can enjoy the experience of the Olympic Games without any divisive disruption.” 

It is unfortunate that the Olympics is digging its heels this far into the ground. In the past couple of months, we have witnessed mass murders and hate crimes of people from Asian communities, ongoing destruction in Gaza which resulted in numerous Palestinian lives lost, and the unending loss of Black American lives at the hands of police. Athletes across the country have plenty to stand up for, and even more to fight for. Forcing them to separate their race, ethnicity, culture and communities to perform and compete on behalf of their countries overlooks the plight each competitor will face when they return home. 

What vividly stands out in the statement from the IOC is the assertion that proclaiming that Black lives matter, demanding to #StopAsianHate or believing that trans rights are human rights can be considered “divisive disruptions.” Instead of acts of hate and prejudice admonished throughout the world, the IOC decided to punch down towards all of the oppressed, marginalized groups fighting for their lives. It chose to condemn them for resisting at all. When indirectly stating that fighting for equality and humanity for all is considered divisive, the IOC has made its decision on which side to take. 

As we further examine the statement from the IOC, we see statements centering neutrality for the sake of peace and harmony. 

“As athletes, we are passionate about our sports and achieving our sporting performance goals. For each and every one of us, that passion continues into everyday life, where we advocate for change on issues of great importance to us and our world. That desire to drive change can naturally make it very tempting to use the platform of an appearance at the Olympic Games to make our point.
"However, all of us are here at the Olympic Games because, one day, we dreamt of being an Olympian, and maybe even an Olympic champion. The unique nature of the Olympic Games enables athletes from all over the world to come together in peace and harmony. We believe that the example we set by competing with the world’s best while living in harmony in the Olympic Village is a uniquely positive message to send to an increasingly divided world. This is why it is important, on both a personal and a global level, that we keep the venues, the Olympic Village and the podium neutral and free from any form of political, religious or ethnic demonstrations. 
"If we do not, the life’s work of the athletes around us could be tarnished, and the world would quickly no longer be able to look at us competing and living respectfully together, as conflicts drive a wedge between individuals, groups and nations. That is not to say that you should be silent about the issues you care deeply about, and below you will find a list of places where you can express your views at the Olympic Games.”

This word salad is the most elaborate way of saying “I don’t see race” you might ever read. Phrases like “conflicts drive a wedge between individuals” and “neutral and free” highlight the sterile stance that the IOC has decided to take during such a momentous period. We know that silence is not an option when fighting for progress. Even with the approved list of “places where you can express your views,” which includes interviews, team meetings and social media, the powers that be are doing their best to do nothing to stand with persecuted communities. As legendary South African humanitarian Bishop Desmond Tutu once stated, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Olympics, meet mouse. And no, we don’t appreciate your neutrality. 

The IOC is hoping to avoid the legendary moment fueled by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the iconic civil rights activists who raised their fists in solidarity with those fighting for human rights worldwide. They did this with the backdrop of the devastating Vietnam War while the Black Panthers advocated for Black lives stateside. In a recent interview, the now 75-year-old Carlos went as far to state that the Olympics apparently “haven’t learned anything over 53 years”

While the IOC thinks it can quell athlete activism on the world stage, it would not be surprising to see at least one athlete risk punishment in order to send a message of unity to the members of their community. All things considered, this is just a mere hiccup in the ultimate push for civil rights as this version of the racial justice movement is still in its infancy and only growing stronger. Carlos eloquently stated that “the fight that you’re in is not necessarily a fight for yourself, but the fight is for your offspring.”

The Olympics has shown time and time again that it does not understand this, but the athletes speaking out and protesting for equality definitely do. And they will continue with or without the blessing of the IOC. 

Jahmal Williams: full-time husband, father, and activist. Part-time beer drinker. Anti-insurrectionist af.

Photo credit: Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports

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