More than half a century after Tommie Smith and John Carlos created one of the most prevailing, iconic images in the history of the Summer Olympics by raising their fists to show allegiance with the Black Power movement, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has vetoed attempts at athlete's protests ahead of the upcoming games in Tokyo.
"The mission of the Olympics is to unite and not to divide. We are the only event in the world that gets the entire world together in a peaceful competition," IOC President Thomas Bach told reporters this week (via Al Jazeera), in the wake of political protests that have come to dominate headlines and often overshadow the sporting events themselves.
Recent years have seen notable sports stars such as Colin Kaepernick, formerly of the NFL, and the USA's World Cup winning-captain Megan Rapinoe using their platform to remonstrate against social grievances, risking the ire of presidents and dividing nations. The two Americans opted to ‘take the knee’ instead of adhering to the USA national anthem that plays pre-match. Kneeling will also be outlawed at the Olympics in the Japanese capital.
The men’s World Cup in 2018 saw players of Kosovar Albanian origin use the occasion to make provocative gestures to opponents of historical grievance. In the most recent Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Egyptian judoka Islam el-Shehaby was expelled after refusing to shake the hand of Israel’s Or Sasson after they faced each other, an action that once again brought politics and religion into debate.
Bach implored both politicians and athletes to conform to the decision and the restrictions imposed: "I ask them to respect this mission of the Olympic Games and in order to accomplish this mission we must be politically neutral.
"Otherwise we would end up in this divisive and boycott situation. I ask them to respect this political neutrality by not using them [the Olympics] as a stage for their political purposes.
"It is a fundamental principle that sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference," the IOC document states, urging "the focus for the field of play and related ceremonies must be on celebrating athletes' performance."
The 2020 Summer Olympics begins on Friday July 24.