John Carlos

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John Carlos, U.S. athletes want new policy for Olympic protests

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John Carlos and the group that protects the rights of U.S. Olympians and Paralympians called on the IOC to abolish the Olympic Charter’s current rule on athlete protests and other forms of expression and develop a new policy.

“Athletes will no longer be silenced,” read a letter written by six leaders of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee Athletes’ Advisory Council and Carlos, the 1968 Olympic 200m bronze medalist who raised a black-gloved first on the medal stand for human rights. “The IOC and IPC [International Paralympic Committee] cannot continue on the path of punishing or removing athletes who speak up for what they believe in, especially when those beliefs exemplify the goals of Olympism.”

The U.S. athletes group wants a new policy, developed in collaboration with worldwide athlete representatives, that protects athletes’ freedom of expression at the Olympics and Paralympics. The letter did not mention specific expressions such as taking a knee or raising a fist.

Earlier in June, the IOC said the IOC Athletes’ Commission will talk with athletes around the world to explore how Olympians can express themselves at the Games while keeping the Olympic Charter in mind.

Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter states in part, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

In January, the IOC Athletes’ Commission published guidelines pertaining to Rule 50. It stated that “protests and demonstrations” are not permitted at Olympic venues, during medal ceremonies, at Opening and Closing Ceremonies and at the Athletes’ Village. “Protests” included “gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling.”

Earlier in June, USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland announced she was creating an athlete-led group to “challenge the rules and systems in our own organization that create barriers to progress, including your right to protest. We will also advocate for change globally.”

In 1968, 200m gold medalist Tommie Smith and Carlos were sent home from the Mexico City Games after raising their gloved fists during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In 2019, Smith and Carlos were inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.

Carlos, who turned 75 on June 5, said two weeks ago that he supports athlete demonstrations done respectfully.

“As long as you don’t do an obscene statement,” he told NBC Sports sprint analyst Ato Boldon. “I think you earned your right, as an Olympian, a guy that sacrificed so much to do so much for so many in order just to have that medal.

“As long as it’s not distasteful, and I don’t think the Olympic Committee, international or national, would have the right to take your 15 minutes out of the sun and tell you what you can and what you can’t do.”

Last August, U.S. Olympic hammer thrower Gwendolyn Berry and fencer Race Imboden raised a fist and kneeled, respectively, on podiums at the Pan American Games in Peru. At the time, the USOPC put them on 12-month probation. Hirshland apologized to Berry four weeks ago “for not understanding the severity of the impact her decisions had on me,” Berry said.

“The Olympic and Paralympic movement simultaneously honors athletes like John Carlos and Tommie Smith, displaying them in museums and praising their Olympic values, while prohibiting current athletes from following in their footsteps,” read the letter from the U.S. athletes group. “The IOC and IPC cannot continue on the path of punishing or removing athletes who speak up for what they believe in, especially when those beliefs exemplify the goals of Olympism.

“Let us work together to create a new structure that celebrates athletes who speak about issues in alignment with human rights and the 7 principles of Olympism.”

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Tommie Smith, John Carlos weigh in on potential athlete demonstrations at Tokyo Olympics

Tommie Smith, John Carlos
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Tommie Smith, who stood on the top step of the 1968 Olympic 200m podium, his black-gloved right fist raised, hopes that all athletes can learn from the history made that night in Mexico City.

“Think first before you act,” Smith recently told an NBC affiliate in Grand Rapids, Mich. “Then move with the justice of freedom. Move with the idea of we are one.”

When Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos raised their fists, wearing Olympic Project for Human Rights buttons along with Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, they were calling attention to people being oppressed around the world.

“What we stood for in 1968, here we are in 2020, and it’s come full circle back to what we said,” Carlos told NBC Sports track and field analyst Ato Boldon. “What you’ve seen, not only here in the United States but worldwide, and that is a rainbow coalition and that is humanity live and in living color.”

U.S. athletes recently either raised a first or kneeled on a podium at the Pan American Games last summer. In summer 2021, it’s possible that athletes make similar demonstrations at the Tokyo Games.

The Olympic Charter states that protests and demonstrations — including “of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling” — are currently not permitted. IOC President Thomas Bach said last week that the IOC Athletes’ Commission will talk with athletes around the world to explore how Olympians can express themselves at the Games while keeping the Olympic Charter in mind.

Carlos, who turned 75 on June 5, supports athlete demonstrations done respectfully.

“As long as you don’t do an obscene statement,” he said. “I think you earned your right, as an Olympian, a guy that sacrificed so much to do so much for so many in order just to have that medal.

“As long as it’s not distasteful, and I don’t think the Olympic Committee, international or national, would have the right to take your 15 minutes out of the sun and tell you what you can and what you can’t do.”

Smith said he wouldn’t be disappointed if there were no athlete protests in Tokyo.

“I would be disappointed if I see something and think that someone else told them to do it,” said Smith, who turned 76 on June 6. “It has to come from their heart to do it for the people.”

Smith said that the reaction to the killing of George Floyd brought back the feelings he had on the podium in Mexico City, according to The New York Times. Smith and Carlos were sent home from the Olympics for the demonstration.

“All I did was stand there with a fist in the air,” Smith said, according to the newspaper. “It was a cry for freedom. And now people are beginning to throw a right fist up and throw it up for different reasons, but now they have the freedom to do it.”

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MORE: Smith, Carlos remember Olympic protest on 50th anniversary

Tommie Smith, John Carlos part of U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame class

Tommie Smith, John Carlos
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Tommie Smith and John Carlos are part of the 2019 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame class that will be inducted later this year.

The sprinters were sent home from the 1968 Mexico City Games after staging a protest by raising their gloved fists on the medals stand. They were long left on the sidelines at the USOPC, but the federation has worked to bring them back inside the family in recent years.

“It sends the message that maybe we had to go back in time and make some conscious decisions about whether we were right or wrong,” Carlos said, according to USA Today. “They’ve come to the conclusion that, ‘Hey man, we were wrong. We were off-base in terms of humanity relative to the human rights era.'”

The class will be inducted at a ceremony in Colorado Springs on Nov. 1. It will be the first class inducted since 2012.

The rest of the class: Candace Cable, Erin Popovich, Chris Waddell (Paralympics), Lisa Leslie (basketball), Nastia Liukin (gymnastics), Misty May-Treanor (beach volleyball), Apolo Anton Ohno (short track speedskating), Dara Torres (swimming), the 1998 U.S. Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey Team), Ron O’Brien (diving coach) and Tim Nugent (special contributor).

After the Hall of Fame essentially stalled out, USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland pushed to revive it as part of a federation effort to focus more on athletes.

“We thank them for their impact on sport and society, and for continuing to inspire the next generation of athletes and fans,” Hirshland said.

The induction of Smith and Carlos is long overdue. After being kicked out of the 1968 Olympics for their iconic raised-fist protest on the medals stand, the sprinters were left on the sideline of the official U.S. Olympic movement. Their 2016 visit to the White House, along with USOPC leaders, marked the first official event they’d been part of since their ouster in 1968.

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