When American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the medal stands during the Mexico City Games to protest the oppression of black Americans, they gave a voice to generations of athletes eager to express their views, even if the International Olympic Committee and athletic federations are trying to curtail what they consider to be political demonstrations.
While the USOPC said in December it will no longer punish athletes who protest, the IOC reaffirmed that protests during Olympic events or the medal tally are prohibited. That rule will be put to the test when the Tokyo Games begin on Friday, Smith said in a recent interview, as athletes everywhere have woken up in the year since George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis.
Women’s soccer players for Britain, Chile, Sweden and the United States knelt before their matches on Wednesday, which came under a relaxed IOC rule that allows demonstrations before the start of the competition.
In an extensive discussion following the release of “With Drawn Arms,” a documentary about his life, Smith said it makes no sense for the IOC to try to muzzle athletes.
This interview has been abbreviated and slightly edited for clarity.
Are you encouraged by the USOPC’s stance on athlete protests?
Smith: We see what’s happening right now during the Olympics through conversations with kids trying to do something that hasn’t been done before. It is going to happen. This is how we continue. I do believe it is a thought in progress, a progression.
Why is the IOC still opposing protests on the medal podium?
For the IOC, the ‘I’ is very important. That’s the international one. They try very desperately to keep the shell where they can be in control. They think that if they lose control, everything will go haywire. In most of my speeches I say that if something goes wrong, it needs to be rewired. That rewiring is not what they want. They want their conventional efforts that they have now to advance and control all nations.
Do you think their policies will stop athletes from expressing themselves in Tokyo, Beijing or elsewhere?
It is a rational thought that there will be some kind of change. I think within the next three weeks we will see something change. I don’t know who. That’s why the future is so important.
Athletes have kneeled, raised their fists and, most recently, Gwen Berry, the American hammer thrower, turned away of the flag to get a message across. Do you believe that one gesture is more powerful than another?
I never threw a rock and hid my hand. Yes, there are differences in different ways you protest about certain things. I do believe that one is different from the other. Mine was quiet. I called it a silent protest or a silent gesture. Gwen, the WNBA, they are excellent. It’s very challenging.
Have you spoken to members of the US Olympic team?
I’ve talked to one or two athletes, but haven’t put him in position. I give them ideas about the brain and mind over matter and concentration and the science of speed. One athlete I’m particularly interested in is the fastest human in the 200m in America right now. He has a coach, he has a family, a beautiful family and he has a brother who is with him. That’s the only one I’ve contacted to say hello because I don’t want to get in the way. Even if things happen because they said something, they are the ones who have to stand up and defend what they believe in, defend the rights they think they have been taken from him.