Three years ago, The Index’s Editor-in-Chiefs sympathetically “took a knee” with Colin Kaepernick. This Editor-in-Chief will not do the same with athletes at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.
In early January, the International Olympic Committee proposed new rules that will forbid any form of political protest by athletes at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. According to the proposed rules, the prohibition would apply on the field of play, at the various ceremonies, and even extend to the Olympic Village.
The news rules should not come as a surprise. Their existence can be traced back to last year’s Pan American Games. Just a year ago, two U.S. athletes received mixed responses from the public when they protested racial and social injustices during their medal ceremonies. As a result of these actions, organizers anticipated similar protests at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Given the Olympics’ long-standing historical purpose, the Tokyo rules constitute an appropriate restriction on political protest; they will preserve the sanctity of the 2020 Summer Games and prevent politicization like that which occurred at the Pan Am Games.
To understand the purpose of the Olympics, history is instructive. Ancient Greece, where the Olympic Games originated, consisted of many separate yet powerful City States. Introduced in 776 BC, the original Olympic Games showcased the prowess of humankind’s earliest athletes, who competed on behalf of the City States. But the Greek tradition also fulfilled a different, more important purpose: to unify independent City-States scattered throughout the great empire. Once every four years, disputes between the rival states ceased, and non-political pan-hellenic celebrations would ensue. Relying upon relationships fostered at the Games, Greece’s states remained poised to unify militarily against any common enemy that might emerge. And as a result, Greece reigned as one of the greatest empires that our world has ever known.
In 1896, the modern Olympics commenced, expanding its reach to act as a force of unification for the entire world. Today, the modern Olympic Games serve as a pan-human celebration and an opportunity for the human race to appreciate and unify through interaction among its different cultures. For one month every four years, world problems can be put to rest; political conflicts in this complex world are set aside. And so, the new rules that prohibit political protest are consistent with and foster the Olympics’ unification role
There undoubtedly exists racial conflicts that deserve protesting, and athletes should instead utilize the other platforms afforded to them to convey political messages. We should embrace the message of Olympic legend and American sprinter Jesse Owens. Reflecting on an Olympic podium racial protest during the 1968 Games in Mexico City, Owens expressed “This was the wrong battlefield [considering] the disrespect they showed to our flag and the discourtesy shown to the Mexican Government.” As Owens suggested, athletes’ protests hold little value in the Olympic setting, and only detract from the Games. He is absolutely correct — only by abstaining from protest during the Olympics and choosing other more appropriate settings can athletes maximize their influence and improve our society.