Story at a glance

  • New guidelines published by the IOC specify the types of protests and demonstrations forbidden at Olympic venues.
  • These include kneeling, hand gestures or any display of political messaging.
  • There is a history of athletes using the Olympics as an international stage for political statements.

A knee, a raised fist, an empty medal stand — these iconic images have allowed athletes to say their peace on national and international stages without a word. But the International Olympic Committee is doubling down and saying no more. 

New guidelines from the IOC explicitly ban athlete protest by way of kneeling, hand gestures, displaying political messaging or refusing to follow established protocols. 

“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,” the guidelines read. 

Protests and demonstrations are banned at all Olympic venues, including the field of play, Olympic Village, Olympic medal ceremonies and all other official ceremonies. The guidelines say athletes may express their views during press conferences, interviews, team meetings or on other media platforms, but emphasizes that "expressing views is different from protests and demonstrations." 

The IOC also emphasizes that athletes must respect local laws. In Japan, where the 2020 Olympics will be held, freedom of speech, press and other forms of expression are protected under the constitution. However, there are some restrictions "for the sake of public welfare." Legislation like the Broadcast Act limits freedom of speech and reporting on the basis that they "do not harm public safety or morals" and for obscenities. There are also unofficial regulations resulting from self-censorship, which some claim endanger free speech in a conservative society.   

In response, athletes have criticized the IOC for restricting free speech and expression. Global Athlete, a start-up seeking to represent Olympic athletes internationally, released a statement saying that the rules were a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

"Silencing athletes should never be tolerated and to threaten them with removal from the Olympic Games is another sign of the imbalance of power between sport leaders and athletes," the statement read. 

According to the guidelines, all violations of the rule will be evaluated by the country's Olympic committee, the International Federation and the IOC on a case-by-case basis. 

The new guidelines come after two American athletes were punished for medal podium protests at the Pan-American Games in August 2019. Fencer Race Imboden kneeled, and hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised a fist in protest of injustices in America at the games in Peru. Both were put on probation for 12 months, keeping them from participating in the Tokyo Olympics.

“We needed clarity and they wanted clarity on the rules,” said Kirsty Coventry, chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, according to the Associated Press. “The majority of athletes feel it is very important that we respect each other as athletes.”

The guidelines refer to rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

There is a long history of athletes protesting at the Olympics. American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously raised their fists in protest of racial discrimination back home at the 1968 Mexico City Games. On Twitter, many referred to the protest as a positive example of why athlete protest should be allowed.  

IOC President Thomas Bach defended the guidelines at the 135th Session of the IOC on Jan. 10, AP reported

“They [the Olympics] are not and must never be a platform to advance political or any other divisive ends,” Bach said to an audience that included the heads of international sports federations. “Our political neutrality is undermined whenever organizations or individuals attempt to use the Olympic Games as a stage for their own agendas, as legitimate as they may be.”

Published on Jan 10, 2020