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Dallas Cowboys players coaches and owner protesting on September 24

After building for over a year, the National Football League in America is being swept up in a wave of peaceful protests, as players, coaches, and in some cases, owners, are finding ways to silently protest what they believe to be an insensitivity to the issues of race, sparked by comments made in September by the President of the United States.

Referring to an athlete who gets on one knee during the playing of the American national anthem, the President said that such an athlete “disrespects our flag,” and is a “a son of a bitch” who should be fired.

When asked on September 25 at a press conference if the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) would support similar protests in at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, USOC CEO, Scott Blackmun, answered in a way that symbolizes the challenge of protesting at the Olympics.

I think the athletes that you see protesting are protesting because they love their country, not because they don’t. We fully support the right of our athletes and everybody else to express themselves. The Olympic Games themselves, there is a prohibition on all forms of demonstrations, political or otherwise. And that applies no matter what side of the issue you’re taking, no matter where you’re from. … But we certainly recognize the importance of athletes being able to express themselves.

Scott Blackmun

Blackmun’s words are sympathetic regarding an athlete’s right to express views that are deeply personal and important to them. But he does say that the Olympics prohibits “all forms of demonstrations, political or otherwise.” In other words, we respect your right to protest peacefully. But you need to respect the IOC or a National Olympic committee’s right to kick you out if you do so.

In 1968, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who famously stood with gloved hands raised in fists on the medal podium after their gold and bronze medal victories in the 200 meter finals, were consequently forced to leave the Olympic venue.

In 1972, Americans Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett, protested in their own way by standing nonchalantly on the medal stand while the American anthem was playing. Their perceived disrespect resulted in their suspension from further participation at the Munich Olympics, and subsequently in the US team failing to field a 4×400 relay team, an event they were favored in.

Collett explained in 1992 his actions in 1972 in a way that likely reflects the feelings of many athletes who are linking arms, removing themselves from the field or kneeling during the playing of the American national anthem:

I love America. I just don’t think it’s lived up to its promise. I’m not anti-American at all. To suggest otherwise is to not understand the struggles of blacks in America at the time.

Indianapolis Colts protesting
Indianapolis Colts protesting on September 24

U.S. President Donald Trump (C) signs an Executive Order establishing extreme vetting of people coming to the United States after attending a swearing-in ceremony for Defense Secretary James Mattis (R). Reuters/Carlos Barria
When the IOC formed a team of refugee athletes to compete at the Rio Olympics, to highlight the plight of stateless people globally, it was an act for which the IOC was rightfully praised. Through its existence, the modern-day Olympics have symbolized and strived to model tolerance and inclusion.

In recent history, countries that have enforced state-sponsored discrimination have been banned from participating in the Olympic Games. South Africa was banned from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics due to its apartheid laws, and was not allowed back until apartheid ended, re-entering the Games at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

Indonesia was suspended from the IOC, prior to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The Asian Games were hosted in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1962, and then-president Sukarno refused entry of athletes from Israel and Taiwan. IOC president Avery Brundage insisted that the Olympics were an opportunity to bring all nations’ athletes together, not split them apart, and so suspended Indonesia from the IOC.

Sukarno responded by creating an alternative sports tournament called The Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO), which of course, did not include athletes from Israel and Taiwan. The IOC then banned any athletes who competed at the GANEFO games from participating at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Unwilling to pull their GANEFO athletes, both Indonesia and North Korea boycotted the Games.

As we have heard recently, President Donald Trump has made entry to America off limits to citizens from seven countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – Muslim countries all. The American government is stating that protecting its borders is vitally important to its security, and inferring that anyone who is a Muslim, particularly from those seven countries, are potential terrorists.

To me, this executive order runs contrary to the spirit of the Olympics. And while this may be a low rung on the totem pole of priorities related to immigration and national security, I wonder if the Los Angeles bid for the 2024 Olympics is at risk. Will President Trump’s ban, and his rhetoric of America first put a damper on IOC members’ enthusiasm for an Olympics in a country where tolerance and inclusion become lesser values?

I think that is a possibility.