British sprinter Adam Gemili says he is willing to bear the consequences of making his voice heard at the Tokyo Olympic Games in the summer of 2021.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) insists it will enforce Rule 50 – a ban on protests and demonstrations on Olympic sites – despite pressure to relax the rule after the wave of anti-racism protests over the last year, following the murder of George Floyd.
And Gemili has called the blanket ban insensitive, insisting that athletes will protest anyway despite a lack of clarity on what sanctions they may face.
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“I felt it was a very emotionless decision that was not sensitive to what's going on in the world,” Gemili told Eurosport.
The IOC said that the decision was made after surveying 3,547 athletes from 185 countries; the results of said survey found that 67% supported a ban on podium protests. However, Gemili points out that 30% is a substantial number, adding that the blanket ban goes against Olympic values.
“[The survey results] mean that 30% are in favour of protest and having that freedom of speech is pretty much what the Olympics stands for. Everyone is trying to focus on training as it is an Olympic year and the Games provides an opportunity to affect change with the whole world watching. And [the IOC] are saying you can’t do anything!”
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'It doesn’t feel decent; it doesn’t feel human'
The IOC has said – without specifying severity – that athletes will be sanctioned if they are found to be in breach of the rule, which Gemili adds, has left athletes worried.
“The IOC have said there will be sanctions, but without saying what those sanctions are. Will they be fines? Or will they take away medals? It is unclear. It doesn’t feel decent; it doesn’t feel human – it feels very robotic.”
Gemili says the Olympics are similar to the World Cup in uniting the world, but Olympic athletes, unlike their footballing counterparts, do not have a weekly opportunity to make their voice heard, which makes the decision that more frustrating.
“We are not in the public eye that often, so when we do get that moment, why are we not able to use our voices like other athletes do?
"We are protesting as the minority and the fact that they [the IOC] are trying to limit that goes against everything the Olympics says it stands for. I get sport has to be separate from politics. But this is more than politics; this is humanitarian and about decency – this is not political at all. It is so disappointing that if that moment comes [making the podium], I am not allowed to really have a voice, to do anything.”
The 27-year-old added that despite potential sanctions he expects athletes to push back, and noted the power of unity in the recent quashing of the European Super League.
“The speed at which the European Super League got shut down – within two days – [was impressive but] why can’t that focus be applied to racism and real issues? The Super League was about money, this is about equal rights for all humans. It dumbfounds me.
“I hope athletes use their platform to speak out against it. And I hope the IOC will take notice.”
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'I will make a statement'
Regardless of whether the IOC reverses the decision, Gemili thinks athletes will use their moment to make important statements.
“We get one moment every four years, and, with the world’s eyes focused on the Games, athletes will use their moment to protest.”
Asked whether - positioned on the podium at the Tokyo 2020 Games - he would make a statement, Gemili is resolute:
Absolutely! Absolutely! It is the first step – if that means taking a knee, I will do that. I do not stand for racism!
"Whatever sanctions come my way, come my way. It is the first step to use that platform that we have, and if all the athletes do it, are they going to sanction all the athletes? No. We, the athletes, have the power: if we unite – similar to what happened with the Super League – then the IOC will have no choice but to get behind it."
The conversation turns to the wisdom behind implementing a blanket ban. As has been seen with Colin Kaepernick in the NFL, stifling protest can push the message of the movement wider. However, Gemili makes an important point: athletes should not have to make a choice between what is right and their career.
“Kaepernick lost his whole career but the movement that came from that was just phenomenal. However, it should not come to the stage where an athlete is sacrificing their career before the ball starts rolling.”
The IOC remains consistent that protest will be banned, and those who do will be sanctioned, but, as Gemili points out, it was protest, by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, on the podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics that produced one of the most iconic moments and images in sport.
“The IOC use the picture of Tommie Smith,” says Gemili, who wants the IOC to use its platform to promote the matter of equality, and also questions the long-term commitment across industries to movements such as Black Lives Matter.
“They need to use their voice and their platform – the Olympics represents nearly every nation on earth; that is such a big platform to spread a positive message of equality, and, at the moment, that is not happening. That does not make sense to me. [After an initial flurry of support] for the Black Lives Matter movement, it [seems that] big corporations – across the world – made all the right noises, but when it comes to putting those sentiments into action they are failing to follow through.”
The British Olympic Association (BOA) will back its athletes if they protest, and the 100m sprinter fully expects athletes to do so.
“It is just ridiculous. It just lacks sensitivity to what is happening in the world. But athletes will protest – I expect a lot of the older athletes to protest but I hope a lot of the younger ones who are passionate do too.
Saying nothing is the same as having the opposite view so for me I have to use my voice and my platform.
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