After the International Olympic Committee (IOC) re-affirmed its rule to ban demonstrations last week, Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee (TTOC) president Brian Lewis said it is not a rule that he can in good conscience support.
The (IOC) approved a recommendation from its own Athletes’ Commission to curtail the right to protest on the field of play, under its Rule 50 which bans demonstrations of “political, religious or racial propaganda” on Olympic sites.
A report from the Athletes’ Commission (AC) — chaired by former Zimbabwe Olympic swimmer Kirsty Coventry — indicated that nearly 70 per cent of respondents did not feel such protests were appropriate.
A total of 3,547 athletes representing 185 countries and 41 sports responded to the survey, part of a ten-month consultation process that followed the Black Lives Movement in the USA and heightened by the George Floyd murder at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty on three charges.
The AC recommendations, unanimously approved by the Thomas Bach-led IOC executive board, are be submitted to the IOC’s legal affairs commission “to consider the range of potential sanctions against those who fail to adhere to the rule,” a report stated.
Lewis said the origins of the rule, instituted under former IOC president Avery Brundage, a man known for racist and anti-Semitic views, made it a difficult pill to swallow.
“There are those who will say that the rules are the rules and that if that is the IOC rules and that is the decision of the IOC then everyone should comply with the rules but it is not a rule that in clear conscience I can support,” Lewis emphasised.
Lewis said it was very interesting that a mere 3,500 athletes out of an aggregate 15,000 between the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games were surveyed, having the opposite view to other entities within the Olympic movement.
“You have had athlete commissions and organisations in New Zealand and the USA saying that the rules should be reviewed. We have had the USOC and Sebastien Coe of World Athletics saying that they won’t punish athletes who raise a fist or take a knee. I have also since last year indicated that the TTOC will not punish any Team TTO athletes who take a knee or raise a fist in support of the efforts for racial justice and to speak out against racial injustices,” Lewis explained.
The Caribbean Association of national Olympic Committees (CANOC) president added that recent guilty verdict of Chauvin in the Floyd murder case is being seen as a first step to addressing racial injustices.
“But such a decision to retain and reaffirm that athletes would be punished under rule 50, to me, I remember the words of Martin Luther King Jr in his April 1963 letter from the Birmingham jail when he referenced St Augustine, stating “an unjust law is no law.”
He said while Bach has previously stated that the history of Brundage is well-documented and that persons should not aim to re-write history, it was important and appropriate for the leaders of national Olympic Committees with differing views to respectfully speak up.
“While I hear Bach’s desire to keep the Olympic Games politically neutral, such a declaration that the Olympics is such can’t really withstand exacting scrutiny,” Lewis said, adding that the IOC had taken political stances in the past.
“I understand and accept that (this) is, for many, a delicate and complex and not simple issue but for me and in my mind it is very clear. The athletes’ right in a peaceful and non-violent and respectful way to demonstrate their support and calls for racial justice and to raise awareness is a right,” Lewis said. “... It is a time, to be honest, when one should not be made to feel guilty for or punished for raising a fist or taking a knee in support for calls or advocating for racial justice. You would think that we would be more aware.”