Canadian athletes took the middle ground in their statement on the International Olympic Committee’s anti-protest rule on Monday.
The Canadian Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission (COC AC), with support from the national committee, put forward seven suggestions to Rule 50 that states “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
The Canadian athletes suggested the addition of neutral protected spaces at the Games for peaceful demonstrations that don’t interfere with the competition.
They also suggested clear guidelines be established for what constitutes demonstration, protest and propaganda, as well as provisions for what are considered acceptable actions.
Oluseyi Smith, two-time Olympian and COC AC chair, said the consensus showed a desire for protests not to interfere with competition on the field of play. There was little agreement, however, about demonstrations on the podium or at the opening and closing ceremonies.
“Athletes agree that the games have to remain for sport while at the same time giving an opportunity for athletes who have earned their right to speak — to champion things which are important to them while the world’s watching,” Smith said.
The rule was made stricter in January when the IOC reduced the number of spaces at which it would allow the athletes to protest.
Those changes came under fire following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May that prompted worldwide protests against racial injustice, including among professional athletes.
“This is really just a discussion of, ‘Is this place for sport, or is this a place to champion what we hold dear?’ And I really believe we can have our cake and eat it, too. I think we can go out there and be the best athletes we can [be],” said Smith. “But also bring attention to topics that are important to us as individuals but also to us a nation just like the NBA has done around Black Lives Matter.”
Recommendations weaker than U.S. statement
The Canadians’ recommendations were weaker than the U.S. statement on the matter, which called for the abolition of the rule entirely and was backed by pioneers John Carlos and Tommie Smith, renowned for raising their fists on the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games in protest of racial inequality.
Mian, 30, competed at the 2016 Olympics and graduated from the school of public policy in Calgary. In July, Mian wrote for CBC News that abolishing Rule 50 could do more harm than good.
She suggested that threatening a boycott would be more effective than simple acts at the Games.
“I think waiting to talk about this on the Olympic podium actually misses our opportunity to do true activism.”
Once the Games begin, Mian said athletes lose their negotiating power and protests becomes less effective.
“There are aspects of the Olympic movement and aspects of neutrality that are worth preserving, and I think that we have to have a more nuanced conversation about what is the middle ground between having complete autonomy to say whatever you want and being able to say nothing at all,” Mian said.
Brown, 28, also competed in Rio. The sprinter said Rule 50 goes against the values of the Olympic movement, quoting the charter as saying to play “sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind.”
“When you have a rule in place that prevents you from doing that and restricts you in certain elements, I just think that it goes against the spirit of what it’s supposed to stand for,” said Brown.
“If they’re going to be leaders on the field or in the court of play, why not be leaders off of it? They can exact change and shine light on injustices that are happening around the world,” said Brown.
Warner, a 30-year-old London, Ont., native, agreed that athletes should use the Olympic platform.
“In certain situations where your voice is more powerful than your legs or your throwing arm, I think you should be able to speak your mind or talk about the things that have plagued you and your communities,” Warner said.
Consequences for breaking new rule
One other issue considered by the Canadian athletes was that of consequences for breaking their proposed new rule. Mian said governments interfering with individual athletes’ right to protest is a potential negative outcome from the complete abolition of Rule 50.
To that end, the COC AC recommended establishing clear consequences and “degrees of violation” for athletes who break the rule.
Rule 50 also includes language banning the commercialization of the Olympics through athlete advertising, which the Canadian athletes recommended be separated from protest guidelines.
The athletes’ commission said it only made recommendations that were supported by a clear majority of its members, following a process including public seminars, one-on-ones with individual athletes and an open Q&A.
Below are the COC AC’s full recommendations to amend Rule 50:
- Establish two separate rules when expressing views: one regarding expressions through commercial matters such as emblems, advertising and commercial installations and the other, regarding demonstrations, protests and propaganda.
- Clearly define the terms used within Rule 50 including what constitutes a demonstration or protest or propaganda.
- Establish provisions for what is viewed as an acceptable demonstration based on the values and principles of Olympism.
- Establish clear parameters for an acceptable demonstration that is peaceful and respectful of other athletes and countries.
- Maintain and/or establish neutral or protected spaces that allow for a peaceful demonstration that do not interfere with competition.
- Clearly define and outline the consequences and the “degrees of violation” around demonstration, protest and propaganda.
- Explore other opportunities to meaningfully celebrate unity and inclusion by taking a stand against racism and discrimination.