In one of the most well-known Olympic protests, US gold and bronze medalists Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) raised their fists as a "Black Power" gesture during a 1968 medal ceremony in Mexico City.
CNN  — 

The Tokyo Olympics – after a long delay – are finally happening.

The opening ceremony formally kicked off the Games Friday and sporting events are underway. There’s nothing but excitement in the air, according to IOC Athletes’ Commission Chair Kirsty Coventry. In her statement Tuesday, Coventry painted a rosy picture, saying “The Village is looking great, the athletes are super excited. We’ve been hearing some very positive experiences from athletes I must say.”

But there’s also plenty of controversy. Most notably, Japanese citizens have shown rising animosity toward the Games as Covid-19 infections sweep the country, with some protesting against them even as the opening ceremony took place. Multiple athletes from different countries have already had to self-isolate after coming into contact with the virus – even though most sports have yet to hold their first event.

That’s not all. The Games have also become entangled in a debate over the right of athletes to protest, a topic that’s become so inflamed that dozens of athletes, academics and professors from around the world signed a letter Thursday pushing for the IOC to amend its longstanding rules and allow athlete protest.

“We believe the global sport community is at a turning point in matters of racial and social justice,” the letter read, “and we call on you as leaders in the Olympic and Paralympic Movements to make a stronger commitment to human rights, racial/social justice, and social inclusion.”

Despite history, the Olympics try to discourage protesting

For more than 100 years, the Olympics have been used as a platform for political and human rights protest – both by athletes and by entire countries.

One of the earliest examples was in 1906, when Peter O’Connor, an Irish track and field athlete, had to compete under the flag of Great Britain. He protested by climbing up the flag pole and displaying the Irish flag instead – about a decade before the Irish War of Independence would lead to the creation of Ireland as a free state.

But one of the most famous examples of Olympic protest came in 1968, when John Carlos and Tommie Smith, two Black American track athletes, raised their fists in a Black Power salute while on the medal podium. Peter Norman, an Australian athlete who had won silver, stood with them in solidarity. All suffered greatly for their act of protest. Carlos and Smith were sent home and banned from the Olympics, while Norman was shunned from following competitions, too.

It was just after this moment when Rule 50, the Olympic policy which bans forms of protest, reached its modern form, said Jules Boykoff, a professor in the Politics & Government department at Pacific University. The goal, he explained, was to suppress protests and “keep the games as neutral as possible and apolitical as possible.”

Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter infamously states that “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

The rule has received lots of pushback in the months leading up to the Tokyo Games, as demonstrations have continued throughout recent competitions.

Fencer Race Imboden, for example, took a knee during the National Anthem during the Pan American Games in 2019. Hammer thrower Gwen Berry, during an Olympics qualifying game this year in June, turned away from the US flag as the anthem played, holding up a T-shirt reading “activist athlete” over her head during the medal ceremony.

In April, following pressure to amend the rules, the IOC released a comprehensive report surveying 3,547 Olympians and other athletes on their feelings regarding protests at the Games. According to the survey, 67% of athlete respondents surveyed thought the medal podium was “not appropriate” for demonstrations, with 70% saying that demonstrations are not appropriate on the field of play or at official ceremonies.

Gwen Berry holds up a shirt reading "Activist Athlete" as she celebrates finishing third in the Women's Hammer Throw final on day nine of the 2020 US Olympic Track & Field Team Trials on June 26, 2021.

Critics of the survey, however, noted a few issues with the report, pointing to how specific questions were phrased and the fact that 14% of responders were from China – a disproportionate number as Chinese athletes made up less than 4% of participants during the 2016 Summer Olympics and 2018 Winter Olympics.

EU Athletes, a federation representing athletes across Europe, also criticized the survey’s methodology, while noting that regardless of the results, freedom of speech is a human rights issue, according to the United Nations. EU Athletes argued that the IOC’s rule infringes upon that.

“The IOC’s approach to freedom of speech and expression consists of an attempt to restrict, redefine and control the way that the athletes exercise their fundamental human right,” EU Athletes wrote in a statement in April. “Threatening to sanction athletes who peacefully protest on issues such as racism is not only inconsistent with human rights, but also goes against the values that the IOC claims to support.”

The IOC finally amended the rule on July 2, allowing for some demonstrations on the field of play before the start of competition.

Some things listed in the update were always allowed, Boykoff said, such as speaking politically in the Mixed Zone. Still, the new ability to speak out ahead of competition is “not nothing,” he said.

President Jimmy Carter addressed athletes set to compete in the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow at the White House in Washington on March 21, 1980. Carter asked them to support his proposed boycott of the Games to punish the Soviets for their invasion of Afghanistan, showing how the Olympics have been used by nation states as a form of protest.

But it wouldn’t have happened without social justice movements – like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo – of recent years and months, and the “athlete empowerment era” we are currently in, Boykoff said. Athletes around the world have mobilized outside of the IOC, pushing to have their voices heard through athlete-led organizations like the International Swimmers’ Alliance, which just launched this year, and Global Athlete.

The amended rule is still not nearly as free as some athlete groups might hope.

“Even these amended guidelines prevent a new Smith, Carlos or Norman from emerging,” Boykoff said, referencing the three athletes who participated in the landmark 1968 protest, who are now hailed as icons.

It bears noting, then, that Smith and Carlos, along with hammer thrower Berry, are among the dozens who signed Thursday’s letter to the IOC pushing to further amend Rule 50.

Why protest at the Olympics

Part of the Olympics’ hesitation to freely allow protests against political or human rights violations stems from the fact that the games feature 200 countries, all with differing politics, said Patrick Cottrell, a professor of political science at Linfield University.

“The Olympics can’t be viewed as a platform for anything that’s overtly political,” Cottrell said, which explains the insistence on neutrality.

There’s also the fact that the games are capitalistic, with corporate sponsors also having a vested interest. Part of the balancing act is attempting to minimize the risk for the sponsors, he said.

At the same time, the IOC is probably looking ahead, he said. The next Olympic Games will be held in Beijing in 2022, and if you open up the floodgates for protests now, there could be issues then.

Boykoff agreed, noting that there is probably less concern over athletes boycotting Japan during the Tokyo Olympics, while there might be concerns among IOC officials about the protests that may take place during next winter’s Olympics.

Beijing’s alleged repression of Uyghurs, a predominately Muslim ethnic minority, is one issue that may lead to protest, Boykoff noted – especially by Muslim athletes from other nations. China does not have the same freedom of speech protections that are common in much of the West. It could be one reason behind the IOC’s hesitancy to freely allow athletes to protests now, even though the Winter Olympics tend to be less popular.

From an athlete perspective, though, the Olympics present a prime opportunity to bring international attention to specific issues.

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, for example, Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa crossed his wrists at the finish line during the marathon competition, drawing international attention to human rights issues affecting Oromo people in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia's Feyisa Lilesa crosses the finish line of the Men's Marathon athletics event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Sambodromo on August 21, 2016.

“I would have regretted if I had returned to Ethiopia without taking the opportunity to make the situation of my people known in this way and make their voices heard,” he told CNN via email from Washington DC in 2016. “My people were yearning to be heard… to let their condition be known and because of my protest… now people know who the Oromo are and what they face.”

And in Tokyo, multiple women’s soccer teams have already taken a knee in protest of racism around the world. Though the gesture is not against the rules, it may set a tone for the weeks ahead.

The Olympics have long pushed the message of unity – the five rings are, for instance, meant to symbolize the union of Africa, Asia, Australia, the Americas and Europe. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to pretend that’s actually the case, Boykoff said.

“It’s much harder to make that argument, and I think they’re finding that reality is impeding on their symbology,” he said, referencing Covid-19 vaccination disparities between countries as an example.

Still, the past year in particular has revealed how sports can be an agent of political change – like how the WNBA’s activism affected the Georgia senatorial election.

But if the purpose of the Olympic Games is to show how the world can come together through sport, any kind of protest reveals a crack in the facade. It’s easier, then, to emphasize a smiling procession of nation states and their flags, than the complex political reality beneath.