• Cathy Freeman carried the Koori Flag on her victory lap after the Sydney Olympics gold in the 400m. (AAP)Source: AAP
The International Olympic Committee announces specific rules applying to political protests by athletes for the upcoming 2020 games in Tokyo.
Tess Ryan

17 Jan 2020 - 1:18 PM  UPDATED 17 Jan 2020 - 1:18 PM

Last week, the International Olympic Committee announced a new set of guidelines which effectively ban Olympic athletes from communicating messages of a political nature, such a salutes, hand gestures, taking a knee or any refusal to follow medal ceremony protocols. But there has been a long history of political comment in sports, with acts of protest providing some of the pivotal moments in memory at the Games.   

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are familiar with many of these iconic moments, as some of them resonated directly with the experiences affecting our lives.  

For example, the 1968 Mexico Olympics is remembered for the Black power salute given by two African American sprinters, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, to bring attention to racial inequality in the United States. But the image of them saluting from the podium inspired and motivated people of colour around the world, particularly the rising Aboriginal rights movement in Australia at the time.

Lesser known was the fact that the white athlete on the podium, an Australian named Peter Norman, stood in solidarity with Carlos and Smith. In addition to wearing a badge that promoted the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) - an organisation opposing racism in sport - Norman also provided Carlos and Smith with the pair of black gloves they wore to accentuate their Black Power salute.

The controversy that followed saw Carlos and Smith expelled from the Games, and Norman was never selected to run for Australia again. In fact, Norman’s life was forever affected by his participation in the demonstration. So much so, that in 2012 the Australian Federal Parliament formerly apologised to Norman’s family and acknowledged his work in addressing racial inequality. 

Their act of protest may be viewed as a crucial gesture of reconciliation between Black and White around the globe, but more pointedly, it is also part of Australia’s story in regards to this country's treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

At a time when White Australia seemed ignorant or unwilling to address these issues, Black Australia were living them in the every day. Seeing Carlos and Smith take such a stand was a powerful and inspiring representation for us, but seeing a White Australian in Norman stand in solidarity demonstrated there may be hope for improved relations in our society.

There is also a history of the Games itself making important political statements, including the sporting boycott of apartheid in South Africa in the 1960s, and Rhodesia in the 1970s. To suggest that politics has no place in sport is ridiculous when we see countless examples of where the politics has played a major role in positively shaping society.

For those athletes who identify and take strong positions in discussing race, sex, gender or politics, the new guidelines for Tokyo 2020 could have lasting impacts. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we may never get the chance to feel the power of representation and strength we saw with Cathy Freeman after her 400 metre Olympic win in Sydney, 2000.

Freeman's victory lap proudly carrying the Koori Flag as well as the Australian Flag even had its own secondary narrative of personal resilience, defiance and pride: only six years earlier,  the champion athlete received an extraordinary public censure from the Australian team's chief de mission Arthur Tunstall following her race win celebrations with the Koori Flag at the 1994 Commonwealth Games.

Freeman’s insistence on carrying the Aboriginal flag (something she began doing at track meets from the age of 16) is the perfect example of how political gestures in sport appeal to a historically oppressed, otherwise unrepresented people and, again, how it can benefit a society more broadly.

Freeman's acts of representation were pivotal moments in changing the gaze upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and as Kamilaroi woman and highly respected photographer, Barbara McGrady, has said, "sport is a microcosm of society”. 

At a time when what is needed is for those representatives of marginalised or oppressed groups with a platform to passionately speak truth to power, the new Olympic guidelines will do little more than safeguard a status quo. And that, in sporting terms, is a dud run.

Besides, doesn't the Olympic Committee know that its brand began to dim a long time ago? The event needs all the relevance it can get.

And does it not see the hypocrisy, when on one hand it will ban Russian athletes for competing under a Russian flag due to doping scandals, yet announces it will discipline athletes such as Australia’s Mack Horton for refusing to stand on the podium with an alleged drug cheat?

We must also ask who gets to determine what is classed as ‘divisive disruption’ as stated in the Olympic Committee's new guidelines? What dominance does it disrupt? If positioned as a powerful representation of Aboriginal Australia, for instance, then surely a stance in support of our culture couldn't be considered divisive? 

If attempting to silence the voices of those that can speak to oppressive powers, then we are on a slippery slope that may well include connections to the 1936 Olympics in Germany amidst the era of Nazism. A number of German athletes were deemed 'undesirable’ and excluded from that competition too.

Dr Tess Ryan is a Biripi woman and Melbourne-based academic and writer. Her work focuses on Black women, power, representation, and leadership.

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