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US athletes can now demonstrate against racial injustice at Olympic trials

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
A statue depicting US track and field athletes Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right), as they raised gloved fists during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics, at the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of African American History and Culture in in Washington, D.C., on September 14, 2016. (Photo by UPI)

The athletes representing the US at the Olympic trials will not be sanctioned for kneeling for the national anthem in support of social and racial justice movements.

The announcement was made on Friday by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC), which released guidance for the athletes on demonstrations that are allowed.

The demonstrations permitted include raising a fist at the start line or podium, kneeling for the national anthem at the start line or podium, and wearing clothing that has social justice language such as “Black Lives Matter.”

In December last year, the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice, with support of the USOPC and the Athletes’ Advisory Council, had requested end of prohibition on peaceful demonstrations by team members at the Olympic and Paralympic Games. 

It came at a time when the US is grappling with unprecedented social injustice, racial prejudices, hate crimes and white supremacist violence, with many incidents reported across the country.

Black Americans and Asian-Americans have faced a number of violent attacks from strangers, mostly white supremacists, with law enforcement agencies failing to protect them.

The murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black African American, in May 2020 in Minneapolis, which was caught on video by a passerby, gave a new direction to the movement.

“There is a deep desire for Team USA athletes to speak on these issues, and to lead as a positive force in our community," Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the USOPC, said in a statement.

The guidelines also mention actions that would not be allowed, such as defacing an American flag or engaging in racist or hate speech.

The US Olympic trials will take place in June this year, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

There is a history of such symbolic protests at the Olympics, starting from the 1968 Mexico Olympics when US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists after winning the 200-meter race.

The action became an iconic symbol of struggle for racial equality in the US, and was condemned by the American Olympic officials, as it shined light on rampant racial inequality in the US.

The duo were part of the movement ‘Olympic Project for Human Rights’ founded by Harry Edwards, which organized protests against racial discrimination faced by African-American athletes in the US.

The athletes and their families were soon kicked out of the Olympics, abandoned by their national sports bodies, besides receiving a barrage of hate and death threats.  

In 2016, carrying forward their legacy, American civil rights activist and former football quarterback Colin Kaepernick started a movement of kneeling during the national anthem before the National Football League (NFL) games to raise awareness about racial injustice.

In 2018, the NFL banned on-field kneeling during the national anthem, but the practice soon spread to other sports, as the incidents of racist violence spiraled.

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