TOKYO — After a day of waiting for the International Olympic Committee to give its opinion on the medal stand demonstration of U.S. shot putter Raven Saunders, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee went ahead Monday evening and announced that Saunders was “respectful of her competitors and did not violate our rules related to demonstration.”
It was a statement in keeping with the policies and beliefs of the USOPC and its CEO, Sarah Hirshland, who has said the organization will not punish athletes for exercising their right to free speech on the Olympic medal stand as long as their actions do not express hatred.
And it was an announcement steeped in the USOPC’s understanding of the concerns of American athletes in the wake of the May 2020 murder of George Floyd and the resulting protests and demonstrations by U.S. athletes against police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter.
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The USOPC has pointed out to the IOC that Saunders did not perform her demonstration Sunday night during the awarding of the medals in the event, nor during the playing of the Chinese national anthem for winner Gong Lijiao.
Saunders raised her arms and crossed them in the shape of an X — “for oppressed people,” she explained later — after the anthem was over in a brief window, usually less than a minute long, when the Olympic medalists are instructed to take off their masks for photographs.
In its statement, the USOPC said it is in “discussion” with the IOC and World Athletics, track and field’s international federation.
“As with all delegations, Team USA is governed by the Olympic Charter and rules set forth by the IOC for Tokyo 2020,” the USOPC said in its statement, attributed to chief communications officer Kate Hartman.
However, it then said it conducted its own review of the demonstration, determining that “Raven Saunders’ peaceful expression in support of racial and social justice that happened at the conclusion of the ceremony was respectful of her competitors and did not violate our rules related to demonstration.”
IOC chief spokesperson Mark Adams said Monday evening in an email that the organization was “looking into” the USOPC statement. “We are also in contact with World Athletics.”
Earlier in the day, Adams said, “We are not surprisingly looking into the matter, and will consider our next steps. We need to fully establish what’s going on and then take a decision from there.”
The IOC and USOPC have different views about how demonstrations should be treated during the Games. The IOC prohibits demonstrations on the podium, but in a nod to the changing times, is allowing athletes for the first time at the Olympics to express their views prior to the start of competitions, such as when women’s soccer players here have taken a knee before their matches.
At a different moment in time, the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised an arm in a black-gloved protest on the medal stand during the playing of the U.S. national anthem after the men’s 200 meters.
They were met with derision and sent home, ostracized from the Olympic movement for decades. Now, of course, they are American heroes.