As the Olympics reached its usual anti-climactic conclusion it felt like an event that took place in 2020 rather than 2021. Apparently, no one gave the International Olympic Committee (IOC) the memo that last year’s summer of protest has forever banished the ridiculous idea that sport is separate from politics and protest. From football, to basketball, to car racing and every sport in between we have seen a year of protests from athletes using their platforms to highlight the issue of racial injustice. But whilst they relaxed rule 50 that prohibits any ‘demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda’ to allow teams to take the knee before games, the IOC banned displaying any of the images on their official social media pages. At least we can treasure having a perfect example of liberal racist doublespeak to use as a teachable moment.
The ban has been maintained during competition and on the podium, leaving athletes like Costa Rican gymnast Luciana Alvarado to get creative and take the knee and raise a fist during her routine, in a political middle finger to the IOC. But in a reminder of the stakes for athletes, US shot-putter Raven Saunders found herself under investigation for making a X over her head whilst receiving her silver medal. Maybe they were terrified it was an ode to Malcolm (God forbid!!), but she used it as symbol of ‘the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet’. They only suspended the investigation because her mother sadly passed away, not because they realised their stupidity.
All of this is particularly dispiriting because it shows how little change has actually been made over the decades. The most iconic image from the Olympics is the picture I have hanging framed in my office, behind me as I type. Tommie Smith and John Carlos won gold and bronze in the 200m in 1968 and gave the Black Power salute in protest against racial injustice, providing an image that will forever stand as a powerful symbol of athletes using their voices. In response the two athletes were thrown out of the Olympic village due to what IOC president Avery Brundage described as their “deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.” This is the same Brundage who defended Nazi salutes at the 1936 Olympics as a “national symbol.” The Olympics should be ashamed of their history of telling athletes to shut up and play, not doubling down on it. It is Smith and Carlos that represent the true spirit of athletes and sport.
The biggest lie underpinning the Olympic movement is that it is about bringing the world together in some sort of spirit of fairness. In reality it is a jingoistic pissing contest designed largely to reinforce the superiority of the richer (and mostly Whiter nations). China and Japan stand out in the top ten as nations that are not majority White. From the British media coverage, I think I am supposed to be proud of Team GB’s medal total due to the successes of a number of people whose ancestors were captured in slavery and/or colonised, and because the country has the resources to participate in activities like horsey-prancing, sailing and to build first class cycling velodromes. The only moments I got carried away with were when the Jamaican women dominated the sprinting, but then the relay was on so-called Jamaican independence day and it just reminded me it was all a farce. My number one hope for the Olympics is that we follow the example of the Refugee team and pull together a ‘captured people’ collective to represent all of the descendants of the enslaved. We might not podium in horsey-prancing but I think we’d do pretty well in the medal table.
I hope the Olympics was an outlier, a throwback to another era, stuck in the pre-Black Lives Matter idea of the role of politics in sport, but I fear for the worst. We should never look to athletes to lead the struggle but the last year has shown the strength of their platform for popularising ideas of racial justice. The sheen from last summer has almost completely worn off, with companies and governments going back to business as usual without even pretending to care. It would be a shame if sports falls back into the old routine. Athletes are not going to save us but they do have a platform and resources that can be extremely helpful if we are to build the alternatives to get us out of this wicked system.