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A U.S. Athlete Defies Olympic Podium Protest Ban Under Threat Of Sanctions

Team USA's Raven Saunders gestures on the podium with her silver medal after competing in the women's shot put event Sunday at the Tokyo Olympics.
Ina Fassbender
AFP via Getty Images
Team USA's Raven Saunders gestures on the podium with her silver medal after competing in the women's shot put event Sunday at the Tokyo Olympics.

TOKYO — The International Olympic Committee said it's looking into a U.S. athlete's decision to defy a ban on protesting while on the medal podium in Tokyo.

U.S. shot-putter Raven Saunders briefly held her arms above her head in the shape of an X after accepting her silver medal. The ceremony was over; China's anthem to honor gold medalist Gong Lijiao was complete.

Saunders later explained it represented the "intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet."

Saunders, a Black gay woman who is outspoken on racism, bigotry and issues of social justice, knew she was defying Olympic organizers. They're under unprecedented pressure to end a ban on protests at the podium. Athletes and athlete advocates said the ban infringes on their basic human right of freedom of expression.

In a press conference IOC spokesman Mark Adams said they are in touch with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and World Athletics, the governing body for the Games.

"Not surprisingly we are looking into the matter, and we'll now consider our next steps," Adams said.

Last year the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee announced it would not punish those who protested on the podium in response to athlete demands. But the IOC only relaxed protest rules. It continues to ban any statement on the podium when medalists have the world's attention, including a raised fist for social justice.

On the day of the Olympic opening ceremony, more than 150 athletes, academics and social justice advocates signed an open letter demanding changes to Rule 50, which bans podium protesting.

"Freedom of speech is a basic human right. And the IOC sport rules should not be able to dictate when and where someone can speak," said Rob Koehler, director general of Global Athlete, an athlete-led advocacy group. "That's a breach of the U.N. charter. And the IOC is an observer to the U.N."

Koehler said it's also hypocritical of Olympic organizers to preach about sports being used for social justice and bettering of communities and then bar athletes from making statements about racism and social justice in their countries.

"If you have issues in countries where there's major social and racial justice issues and you're not allowing athletes to use the platform to bring that to the forefront when they have that podium," he said, "to show the world that things aren't OK and you can be a part of the discussion and part of the change, it makes no sense."

Saunders wrote on Twitter, "Let them try and take this medal. I'm running across the border even though I can't swim." She ended with a laughing emoji and pinned it to the top of her feed.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.