At a time when companies, sponsors and athletes have become more vocal about their stances on political issues, Olympians at the upcoming Summer Games in Tokyo might have to keep mum on their own views.
On Thursday, the International Olympic Committee released new guidelines that explicitly ban athletes and officials from protesting by way of kneeling, using hand gestures, displaying political messaging like signs or armbands and refusing to follow established ceremony protocols.
“We believe that the example we set by competing with the world’s best while living in harmony in the Olympic Village is a uniquely positive message to send to an increasingly divided world,” the memo read. “This is why it is important, on both a personal and a global level, that we keep the venues, the Olympic Village and the podium neutral and free from any form of political, religious or ethnic demonstrations.”
The Olympic Charter’s Rule 50 emphasizes the principle that “sport is neutral” and thus must be separated from any propaganda that can be considered “interference” in the field of play. While such neutrality is enforced, the IOC noted that athletes will be able to express their opinions during press conferences and interviews, at team meetings and on digital or traditional media platforms.
If a participant is found in violation of the policy, the IOC, National Olympic Committee and International Federation is expected to take disciplinary action on a case-by-case basis. In Japan, freedom of speech, press and other forms of expression are protected under the constitution but can be restricted “for the sake of public welfare.”
The guidelines come five months after two American athletes were reprimanded by the United States Olympic Committee for protesting on the medal podium at the Pan-American Games in Lima, Peru. Fencer Race Imboden took the knee and hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised a fist to object injustices in America, leading both to be put on probation for 12 months. (As such, they will not be participating in the Tokyo Olympics.)
“We needed clarity and they wanted clarity on the rules,” Kirsty Coventry, chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, told the Associated Press. “The majority of athletes feel it is very important that we respect each other as athletes.”
Swimmers from Australia and Britain also protested last year in July at the World Aquatics Championships in South Korea when they refused to share the podium with gold medalist Sun Yang, who has been implicated in doping violations.
Why the Winter Olympics Don’t Move the Needle for Shoe Sales
How Dick’s Sporting Goods Is Using the Olympics to Send a Message of Unity