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Australia’s Olympians urged to take stance on ’embarrassing’ IOC protest restrictions

by ZwemZa on June 21st, 2020

Pole vault champion Steve Hooker heads the AOC Athletes’ Commission.Credit:Getty Images

A leading human rights lawyer has urged Australia’s Olympians to refuse to sign athlete agreements with the AOC unless rules banning protesting at Tokyo 2021 are relaxed, clarified or scrapped by the International Olympic Committee.

Nikki Dryden, a former Olympic swimmer for Canada and now Sydney-based lawyer, said athletes held unprecedented power to roll back the IOC’s contentious Rule 50, which forbids any form of protest at the Games.

US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, with Australia's Peter Norman, in their famous pose at the 1968 Games in Mexico.
US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, with Australia’s Peter Norman, in their famous pose at the 1968 Games in Mexico. Credit:AP

That includes kneeling for anti-racism, which has become synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement. Few have missed the irony that an act of protest at the 1968 Games, when US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the podium, became one of the most iconic images of the Olympics.

IOC president Thomas Bach last week indicated the body was open to discussions about ‘dignified’ displays of protest at the Olympics but Dryden said any shift in stance would likely be a ‘meek’ exercise in box ticking.

“The IOC will be the last ones to join the party. The NFL, the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC), USA Soccer have all issued apologies to athletes they basically bullied and threatened and punished over the past few years for kneeling or trying to bring injustice into the conversation,” Dryden said.

“Now the IOC has this meek idea of ‘dignified’ protest. It’s embarrassing. The IOC is going to come out with some terrible, watered-down guidance.”

The powerful movement that began in the US in response to police violence against black Americans has swept the world, with athletes in all sports speaking their minds. The NFL even apologised to Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback it ostracised for taking a knee as a form of passive protest.

But despite the IOC saying it was open to making concessions after being lobbied by its own Athletes Commission, headed by former Olympic swimmer Kirsty Coventry, few believe they will go far enough.

The powerful USOPC said it may lobby the IOC to change or scrap Rule 50. Dryden said athlete commissions in the US, Canada and Germany were certain to take a stand against the restrictions, which could see competitors stripped of medals if they don’t comply.

She encouraged Australian athletes yet to sign their team agreements with the Australian Olympic Committee to take up the cause. Athletes already selected would have signed off on agreements, a lengthy document that details rules and expectations, but she said those yet to qualify had the power to force change.

“Swimming and track and field athletes that have not had their trials yet are in a strong position to go to the AOC Athletes Commission and they need to demand that commission renegotiates the agreement to remove any mention of any penalties around Rule 50.2,” Dryden said.

“Athletes have all the power in the world right now to renegotiate those. It’s up to the Athletes Commission to take that to the AOC and say ‘enough is enough’. The AOC then has to go to the IOC and say ‘we have a problem’.

“I guarantee the Canadian athletes are going to do it, I guarantee the US athletes are going to do it. The German athletes are going to do it. This is going to be a revolution and the athletes need to speak up with the whole world watching.”

Dryden said Rule 50.2, which deals with protests and potential sanctions, needed more clarity so athletes could understand the risks of speaking their minds or taking a knee.

“If you were to break the rule, there is no guidance, it’s just threats and innuendo about what can actually happen. They threaten to take away your Olympic medals and they threaten to erase you from Olympic history,” she said.

“That threat is so huge that prior to this racial revolution we are having, I don’t think there are a lot of athletes that would play that game. Being erased from the Olympic movement is a scary thing. Prior to this, there are few athletes that would have done that.

But now there is so much momentum that they need to show what the process is … who is going to decide what is dignified? What does the IOC consider immoral? They should be helping athletes understand what would be OK. If you want to take a knee, there should be clear consequences, or a clear lack of consequences.”

In a statement, the AOC said any concerns from Australian athletes should be directed to the IOC Athletes Commission via the Australia Athletes Commission, which is chaired by pole vault champion Steve Hooker and includes swimmer Cate Campbell and Rio gold-medal winning rower Kim Brennan.

“AOC president John Coates has invited the AOC Athletes Commission to consider submitting any thoughts they may have direct to the IOC Athletes Commission chair, Kirsty Coventry,” the statement said.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have requested comment from Hooker.

Phil Lutton | The Sydney Morning Herald

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