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Heaven forbid an athlete acknowledge their humanity during the Olympic Games taking place in the middle of a plague. US shot-putter Raven Saunders recently learned of what doing so can cost a person after she had to explain what she meant when she raised her hands and crossed them in an ‘X’ following her silver medal win in Tokyo. Saunders, who is Black and queer, won her first Olympic medal on Saturday, finishing with a distance of 19.79 meters.
The 25-year-old says the gesture represented “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.”
“For me, [it means] just being who I always aspired to be, to be able to be me and not apologize for it [and] show the younger generation that no matter what they tell you, no matter how many boxes they try to fit you in, you can be you,” Saunders told the media. “People tell me not to do tattoos and piercings, but now look at me, I’m popping.”
Saunders added that her aim was to give light to “people all around the world who are fighting and don’t have the platform to speak up for themselves.”
“I’m part of a lot of communities,” she added, as she twerked in celebration after her final shot-put throw. (I would twerk if I’d just won a silver medal at the Olympics, too.)
For Saunders, this a significant turn of events. The shot-putter, who made her Olympic debut in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, has previously described how she considered taking her own life as she struggled with her mental health. One might think that after such hardship, she would be allowed to celebrate her victories as she sees fit. Unfortunately, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced it is looking into the gesture Saunders made on the podium as a potential breach of rules banning protests on medal podiums.
In a statement released on Monday via Reuters, the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee argued in Saunders’ favor. “Per the USOPC’s delegation terms, the USOPC conducted its own review and determined 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,” they said.
Much as I appreciate their due diligence on the matter, the IOC’s investigation is a complete waste of time and I hate that it even has to be dignified by anyone.
I understand the IOC is worried about being overtly political, but the truth is that everything is political and only the very privileged get to pretend otherwise. To even have to fear that Black folks taking a knee, saying “Black lives matter” and asking that law enforcement stop unjustly killing us will make things “too political” is maddening on its own merit — but to now question whether any marginalized person can acknowledge their own identities without it requiring an investigation just goes to show how out-of-touch the IOC is.
That’s why I can’t fault Saunders for dismissing any criticism of her gesture. “I really think that my generation really don’t care,” she said, bluntly. “At the end of the day, we really don’t care. Shout out to all my Black people. Shout out to all my LGBTQ community. Shout out to all my people dealing with mental health. At the end of the day, we understand it’s bigger than us and it’s bigger than the powers-that-be. We understand that there’s so many people that are looking up to us, that are looking to see if we say something or if we speak up for them.”
As if I couldn’t be any more proud of Saunders’ spirit in light of this needless attention, she then tweeted: “Let them try and take this medal. I’m running across the border even though I can’t swim.”
It’s so important for the marginalized to speak up to the powerful. Saunders is right. I’m glad she won’t be swayed until believing otherwise.
Like the double standards set for male and female athletes’ uniforms, this investigation is just another entry onto a long list of entries proving how disconnected the IOC is from a significant portion of the global population. Now more than ever do oppressed people want the ability to raise their voices and receive real acknowledgement. And I would like to think that, as this pandemic continues to needlessly take so many lives, it is particularly urgent in 2021 for anyone with a platform to stand up for the vulnerable.
The pandemic has taken a toll on all of us, but the greatest burdens have been felt by the most marginalized. Raven Saunders, as a Black and gay person, is able to understand this two-fold — and, in one simple gesture, has managed to provide a much-needed signal to those struggling all over the world. Because that’s all she really did: give a nod to those struggling.
Saunders is trying to be a beacon of light and it’s a shame the IOC is foolish enough to want to dim it.