Reporter’s Notebook: The Olympics’ long history of getting political

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Olympic fans are now banned from the upcoming Summer Games in Tokyo due to concerns about coronavirus.

That means possible political protests by athletes at the games will have a limited audience – except when they’re captured on TV or social media.

The U.S. Olympic trials over the past few weeks were a warm-up to see who may stand atop the podium for America. And, the trials doubled as a dress rehearsal for possible protests by American athletes at the Games.

Hammer throw specialist Gwen Berry turned her back on the flag during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner during the trials.

"The third paragraph speaks to slaves in America," said Berry to Black News Channel. "Our blood being slain and pilchard (sic) all over the floor. It's disrespectful and it does not speak for Black Americans. It's obvious. There's no question."

BMX freestyle rider Chelsea Wolfe qualified for Tokyo as an alternate. In 2020, Wolfe posted to Facebook that she wanted to medal at the Games so she could "burn a US flag on the podium."

Wolfe later told Fox that anyone is "sorely mistaken" if they doubt she cares about the U.S.

"One of the reasons why I work so hard to represent the United States in international competition is to show the world that this country has morals and values. That it’s not all of the bad things that we’re known for," said Wolfe to Fox.

Still, more than three-dozen House Republicans are pressuring the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) to enforce prohibitions against political displays at the Games.

Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., led a letter lawmakers wrote to the USOC.

"The general public is tired of people who utilize the platform that the United States has created for them and then turn the right to protest against us," said Rosendale.

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The lawmakers say it’s "unacceptable for athletes to use the Olympic Games as a pulpit to attack our country and spread divisive, anti-American political ideologies."

Rosendale says it’s about following the rules. He notes that Rule 50 of the International Olympic Committee’s Charter bars "political, religious or racial propaganda" at Olympic venues.

"It doesn’t matter whether you’re running. Whether you’re bicycling. Whether you’re running a car around the track at NASCAR. There are rules," said Rosendale. "When you decide to commit to participate in those competitions, then you are checking your First Amendment rights to demonstrate at the door."

But there are questions as to whether Republicans who wrote to the USOC actually support free speech – or just dislike the message some athletes propound from the podium.

"Republicans have been making some inroads by claiming that many members of the Democratic party have been working with the media and social media outlets to restrict free speech," said Mark Nagel who teaches the "History of Sport" at the University of South Carolina. "So it’s rather interesting that the Republicans are making an argument that essentially goes against what they’ve been making an argument for."

Politics and the Olympics were always intertwined – practically from the beginning.

Let’s start with 1906 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.

"There was actually an athlete from Ireland who protested by climbing up and taking down a flag and putting up the Irish flag," said Nagel. This came when there was a major dispute between Great Britain and Ireland over Irish independence.

The Summer Olympics overshadowed President Jimmy Carter’s State of the Union address to Congress in the winter of 1980.

"I have notified the Olympic Committee that with the Soviet invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow," said Carter at the time.

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The Soviet Union then returned the favor, opting out of the Los Angeles Summer Games in 1984.

Some Germans viewed the very participation of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Games as another form of protest.

Owens captured four gold medals.

But when he returned home, it wasn’t lost on Owens that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt never congratulated him on his performance.

One of the best-known Olympic protests came at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City. American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at the podium during the national anthem. Smith captured the gold and Carlos the bronze in the 200-meters. Smith later said his gesture was a "human rights" salute, and not a nod to "Black Power," as was characterized at the time.

"The mood of the country is very similar as 1968. We’re very fragmented," said Nagel. "I think it’s just a natural outcome of what’s been going on politically in the United States, over the last year or so."

Former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., competed for the U.S. in Judo at the 1964 Games – also in Tokyo. Campbell opposes blending protests and sports.

"I think it’s a really a huge disrespect for your other teammates and for the nation to" demonstrate, said Campbell.

Campbell observed that part of the Olympic motto is "higher, faster, stronger." Not about medals for political speech.

"There’s no place really in there where you’re supposed to display some kind of a political anger or animosity," said Campbell, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe.

Campbell thinks the International Olympic Committee should strip athletes of their medals if they protest at the Games.

"I don’t think my anger would have allowed me to talk in friendly terms to them if I saw that actually happen at the Olympic Games," said Campbell.

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The coalition of Republicans who wrote to the USOC didn’t threaten action or suggest they may attempt to withhold federal money from the Olympic movement if they didn’t enforce rules against political speech at the Games. Rosendale says that his group is comprised of conservatives who generally don’t want to meddle in private enterprise. Still, they wanted to give a heads up to the USOC.

"We’re just reminding them of their own rules," said Rosendale. "Most folks just want to watch those Games again this summer. They want to root for America."

The Olympic creed says winning isn’t what’s important. The key is to have "fought well."

However, for some athletes, that fight might not be limited to the track and the field.


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