Protest Meets Prowess At The Tokyo Olympics
In our collective understanding, sports and politics are neatly divided into two separate baskets. Sports committees and tournaments on the global stage have always maintained that the podium of sports is not meant for political, social or religious statements.
Sports has to be neutral, they say. But how can sports be isolated from the zeitgeist when the athletes that participate in them are impacted by and have feelings about the socio-political issues colouring their life experiences? The ongoing Tokyo Olympics are proving to be a watershed moment in how sportspersons and spectators alike see this manufactured distinction.
Symbols of Protest
On 31st July, silver medallist Raven Saunders put her arms up to form a cross above her head at the women’s shot put medal ceremony. Saunders, who is Black and LGBTQIA+, said that the X represents "the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet."
This gesture harks back to the historic moment in the 1968 Mexico Olympics when two Black American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a black-gloved fist when the US national anthem was played.
This raised fist was the commonly recognised Black power salute at the height of the Civil Rights movement in the USA. Both of them stood on the podium and received their medals shoeless but with black socks on, to represent Black poverty.
However, this valiant political statement put them under intense scrutiny from media and International Olympics Committee (IOC) alike, leading to their suspension from the games. They were vilified for bringing the topic of human rights to an apolitical platform like the Olympics, and they and their families even received death threats.
Fast forward 53 years, and Saunders’ demonstration was defended by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee which said that she was “respectful of her competitors and did not violate our rules related to demonstration.” Following this, the IOC suspended the investigation into Saunders’ actions, especially in the wake of her mother’s death.
Opening Up About Mental Health
Of course, her show of intersectional solidarity did not come out of nowhere. She has long been outspoken about her struggles with depression and identity, and is even featured in a nine-minute documentary called ‘An Olympic Athlete Takes on Depression’.
No conversation about the Tokyo Olympics and mental health is complete without Simone Biles. After withdrawing from the games citing her struggles with mental health, the top gymnast has sparked a lot of conversation around the importance of prioritising mental well being, pulling the curtain away from the facade of perfection that international athletes are expected to maintain. Putting her foot down, only metaphorically this time, she showed the world that even the best of the best struggle.
However, socio-political statements don’t always have to be podium demonstrations or press announcements. They can also look like a soothing hobby, à la Tom Daley. The Brit diver and gold medallist grabbed eyeballs and headlines last week as he was spotted knitting away quietly in the stands while watching the games live. He said, “Learning to knit and crochet has helped me so much through these Olympics and we won Gold yesterday. I made a little medal case too! YAY!”
While on an individual level knitting serves as a stress-busting activity for Daley, the media coverage this has gotten exhibits how he inadvertently ended up challenging gendered expectations. You can be an Olympic athlete with washboard abs and enjoy a traditionally ‘domestic’ activity like knitting? Shocker.
When athletes like Daley defy these baseless binaries for the world to see, they send out a quiet message to the spectator on the living room couch.
Sometimes even existence is resistance, spotlighted by the fact that this is the queerest Olympics ever- there are at least 182 publicly out LGBTQIA+ athletes (Daley included), which is more than triple the number who participated at the 2016 Rio games.
One thing is exceedingly clear- while most of the world still grapples with discriminatory attitudes towards queer individuals, these athletes are feeling emboldened to assert their identity in the cisheteronormative domain of sports where the straight cisgender man has always been the yardstick for physical strength and endurance.
The effort to broaden the scope of sports has also manifested in collective attempts. On the day of the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics, 150+ athletes, academics and advocates signed an open letter urging IOC and the IPC to “make a stronger commitment to human rights, racial/social justice, and social inclusion” by amending the rulebook and not penalising sportspeople for utilising the platform to protest the social, economical and political disparities that exist both outside and inside the constructed bubble of the Olympic village.
Saying that this is just the debut of wokeness at the Olympics would be reductive and disrespectful. Moreover, politics in sports is not unique to the Olympics. But being one of the largest, most highly watched sporting events in the world, it has the potential to be a lot more than it currently allows itself to be.