Are federations – and the Olympics – ready to support athlete protest?

England’s footballers could not have come any closer.

A penalty shootout defeat at Wembley Stadium to Italy in the final of Uefa Euro 2020 was as near as the men’s national team had got to major tournament success in 55 years. Yet in spite of performances that had thrilled millions for a month, the unfortunate trio to miss from the spot – and their teammates – knew what was coming next.

Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka would spend many hours afterwards plagued by racist abuse on social media, a horrifying episode that nonetheless perpetuated a years-long trend. Athletes and other organizations across British sport had already taken part in a boycott of social platforms in May over the collective failure of governments and tech companies to address an endemic problem, and the England team were ready to go on the front foot.

Influential spokespeople

Captain Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur set a strong tone, telling those who had abused players ‘you’re not an England fan and we don’t want you’. Aston Villa central defender Tyrone Mings took on UK Home Secretary Priti Patel – reminding her, as she condemned the abuse, how weeks earlier she had waved off the booing by some at England games of the peaceful, pre-match anti-racist protest of ‘taking the knee’.

All of this was in keeping with a confident communications position by the England team throughout Euro 2020. In the round of 16, Kane joined his Germany counterpart Manuel Neuer in wearing a rainbow-colored armband in solidarity with LGBTQ+ fans, a gesture which had taken on added significance after the passage of discriminatory legislation by the government of tournament co-host Hungary. Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson tweeted a congratulatory post to a non-binary fan who had attended an England game in full make-up for the first time.

That followed a year in which players like Henderson and especially Rashford – who led a nationwide campaign to extend the availability of free school meals to underprivileged children – have become actively involved in social organizing. They have done that with the tacit support – and often the explicit endorsement – of their clubs and England’s Football Association.

Athlete Activism: Pivotal in the 2020's

Increasingly, as athlete activism has become a pivotal development for sport in the 2020s, leagues, and federations have come to recognize the importance of sharing platforms or offering the freedom to take a stand. US major leagues like the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Football League (NFL) – the latter of which had been reserved on such matters until the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020 – have backed up athletes and teams with their own drives on anti-racism, social inclusion, and voter registration.

This year, the NBA has even inaugurated the annual Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion award for the player who has done most to make a positive contribution. The Portland Trail Blazers’ Carmelo Anthony was the first winner in June, with the league making a $100,000 donation to the Portland Art Museum’s Black Arts and Experiences initiative on his behalf.

In many sporting environments, then, it is now almost an expectation that athletes can speak out on important causes without unreasonable impediment. That has made for a unique challenge to the highest-profile sporting event of them all.

The Olympics and athlete protest

The pandemic-delayed Olympic Games begin in Tokyo on 23rdJuly and it is still unclear what nature of athlete protest will be tolerated. Traditionally, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has presented the movement as a force for good. Each Games begins with the call for an Olympic Truce: a global cessation of military violence and move to dialogue for its duration.

The IOC also supports grassroots sport for development programs and initiatives like the Olympic Refugee Team, a selection of stateless elite athletes given passage to the Games. Yet it also tries to combine this with being an expressly apolitical organization. This is in part an effort to hold together its constituency of 206 national Olympic committees. For some countries, the Games marks the closest thing to normalized relations.

Historically, the IOC has protected that delicate position – and spared the blushes of some of its more controversial host cities – by enforcing regulations like Rule 50, a line it the Olympic Charter which permits ‘no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas’. Under pressure from some national associations and pressure groups like Global Athlete, the body is trying to relax that stance this year.

Building walls or building dialogue

According to a June report by Inside The Games, the Olympic leadership and IOC Athletes’ Commission have been negotiating safe spaces for personal expression in Japan, such as in the line-up before team events like football. However, the podium, opening and closing ceremonies, and the Athletes’ Village are among the areas considered sacrosanct.

Speaking to the Financial Times in mid-July, IOC president Thomas Bach warned against actions in those places in particular. “The mission is to have the entire world together at one place and competing peacefully with each other,” he added. “This you would never manage if the games [became] divisive.”

That report noted that, privately, some Olympic officials accept they cannot entirely police political speech during Tokyo 2020, where fans will not be present in venues within the city limits due to Covid-19 regulations. Already, members of the Great Britain and Northern Ireland women’s football team have confirmed their intention to take the knee before matches, with others in a whole range of sports likely to follow suit.

Many will be watching closely to see what happens if anyone steps outside the prescribed lines for acceptable gestures but the dynamics have changed in another way for the IOC this time. Some of the movement’s biggest sponsors and benefactors have initiated social justice platforms of their own. Comcast – the owner of the Olympics’ biggest benefactor, US broadcast partner NBCUniversal – pledged $100 million in an anti-racism fund last June. Meanwhile, sponsors of Uefa doubled down on Pride imagery when the confederation prevented Munich’s Allianz Arena from lighting up in rainbow colors for the visit of Hungary during Euro 2020.

The days are gone when rights holders could build walls around their events to keep social discourse out. What matters now, even at the Olympics, is building dialogue.