Olympic Athletes need a voice to create change

Mia Kessinger

On Aug. 9, 2019, American Olympic fencer Race Imboden and hammer-thrower Gwen Berry kneeled and lifted their fists in the air on the medal podiums at the Pan American Games. These protests set off a spark of controversy throughout the country, particularly because they were in opposition of President Donald Trump and the injustices that have occurred since the start of his presidency, according to Berry and Imboden. This poses the contentious question: should Olympic athletes be allowed to protest?

Illustration by Kalyn Dawes

Yes, they should. The first amendment states: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech,” meaning as American Olympians, they should be allowed to assert their voice with nothing stopping them. However, with rules and regulations preventing them from expressing their political opinions, it is not that simple. 

The two American athletes who protested at the games received a punishment of 12-months probation as a consequence of breaching the code of conduct, which they had agreed to before competing in the games. As a part of their eligibility, the athletes had complied with the contract, which stated that they could not make any political statements while at the games. 

Although the American protests are fairly new to international competitions, there have been many within the National Football League (NFL) throughout the past few years. The athletes in the NFL, most famously the previous 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, kneeled during the playing of the national anthem in protest of police brutality and discrimination against African Americans. As a result, many people, such as Republican congressman Peter King, argued that protesting was “unpatriotic” and “disrespectful” towards the United States and its veterans.

According to Berry in an article by the Washington Post, she felt she should use her platform to inspire positive change, not as something to use for attention.

“It’s in the Constitution, freedom of speech. I have a right to feel what I want to feel. It’s no disrespect at all to the country. I want to make that very clear. If anything, I’m doing it out of love and respect for people in the country,” Berry said.

When asked in a poll conducted by the Washington Post on Feb. 22, 2018 if it is ever appropriate for NFL players to protest by kneeling during the national anthem, 42 percent of American adults said it was sometimes appropriate, while 53 percent argued it was never appropriate.

Kaepernick began these demonstrations in the NFL, saying his intentions were to protest the biases of the justice system targeting African Americans. Nonetheless, many came to believe that he was only taking a stand for attention, because his career was going downhill and he had not been picked up by any NFL teams. Whatever the reasons behind Kaepernick’s decision to kneel, the intentions behind recent protests by Olympic athletes were very different – as they were simply trying to resolve issues within America, and were not seeking attention.

While kneeling in the NFL results in a team fine, Olympians who protest receive a 12-month probation, a rather harsh punishment in comparison. It also leaves no room for any rule changes for future Olympic games. In fact, the CEO of the American Olympic Committee, Sarah Hirshland, said that if there were future protests, such as in the upcoming 2020 Olympic games, there would be even more severe repercussions. 

In addition to the team fine, the rule set by NFL also allows players the option of remaining in their locker rooms. If Olympic athletes are protesting with the right intentions, should they not be given the opportunity to express their feelings on political issues? At the very least, they should be provided with the choice to not stand on the medal podium, similar to how football players are given the preference of staying in the locker rooms. This way, Olympians will get an opportunity to use their platform to communicate their desire for change within society.

Free speech is in the very foundation of our country; from both the constitution and the people that bring it to life, including Olympic athletes. Imboden was simply trying to raise awareness for issues such as racism, gun control, and mistreatment of immigrants in America, according to his Twitter. Regardless of where you stand in society – from Olympic athletes to high school students – you should have the right to express your political beliefs. This “controversial” question should no longer be a question; the right to freedom of speech is justification for any Olympic athlete to protest.