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Soccer players union pledges support for Olympic protesters

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GENEVA (AP) — Soccer players who defy Olympic rules by making protest gestures at the 2020 Tokyo Games will be supported by their global union.

Freedom of speech on issues like anti-discrimination and gender equality needs to be protected from “a hypocritical rule,” FIFPro general secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann said Wednesday at a United Nations labor agency conference.

The International Olympic Committee revived the debate on athlete rights this month by publishing details of protests in venues and medal ceremonies that can lead to disciplinary action, including being sent home from Tokyo.

MORE: IOC publishes protest guidelines

Taking a knee, hand gestures with political meaning — such as raised fist salutes — and snubbing a fellow medalist on the podium are specific types of demonstrations long prohibited by Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter.

“We feel their freedom of expression overrides any other interest that may be in play here,” said Baer-Hoffmann, whose union represents 65,000 professional players.

He praised players who have fueled “these fundamental debates” in soccer by speaking out about racism and equal pay for women.

“They are trailblazers but, on the one hand, they are being welcomed by people to take this forward and make sport appear as a change agent in society,” Baer-Hoffmann said. “And, on the other, now we have a hypocritical rule that says if you do it in our venues, we think this is a sanctionable offense.”

“This is absolutely unacceptable,” the union official said on the sidelines of an International Labor Organization conference about athlete working conditions, also attended by Olympic officials.

The IOC says political neutrality is key to keeping the Olympics a place where athletes worldwide can compete together in peace.

Political opinions can be expressed in Olympic venue interviews and on social media accounts, according to the new guidelines drafted after consultation by the IOC athletes’ commission.

The Tokyo Games soccer tournaments are a 16-team event for men and 12 for women . They kick off on July 22, two days before the opening ceremony, and end on Aug. 8.

The United States will be the women’s favorite if the team advances from a regional qualifying tournament. The team’s co-captain in qualifying is Megan Rapinoe, who has taken a strong stand speaking out on social issues.

MORE: Rapinoe kneels during anthem before U.S. game in 2016

“If the IOC decides to discipline players on this occasion, we will certainly stand by them to defend them,” Baer-Hoffmann said.

Not all of the more than 10,000 athletes in Tokyo, competing in 33 sports, have the same collective protection as soccer players.

“There is a danger you will have two classes of athletes at the Olympics,” said Brendan Schwab, executive director of the World Players Association, citing those who either have or lack resources to defend themselves.

Schwab said the Sport and Rights Alliance, a coalition of trade unions and human rights groups, could offer help. Its members campaigned to release Bahraini soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi from detention in Thailand last year.

Those who took a stand at past Olympics — including American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska at the 1968 Mexico City Games — had “suffered terribly for their protest” before being championed decades later, Schwab said.

“We believe the Olympic movement is strong enough, and in fact it is stronger,” he said, “if it provides a safe space for political protest in the course of the Olympic Games.”

MORE: Smith, Carlos part of U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame class

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IOC details rules on political protests at Olympics

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — No taking a knee at the Olympics. No hand gestures with political meaning. No disrespect at medal ceremonies.

The International Olympic Committee published guidelines Thursday specifying which types of athlete protests will not be allowed at the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Athletes are prohibited by the Olympic Charter’s Rule 50 from taking a political stand in the field of play — like the raised fists by American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Games.

Today’s Olympians know more about which acts of “divisive disruption” will lead to disciplinary action in Tokyo. They can still express political opinions in official media settings or on social media accounts.

“We needed clarity and they wanted clarity on the rules,” said Kirsty Coventry, chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, which oversaw the new three-page document. “The majority of athletes feel it is very important that we respect each other as athletes.”

Coventry, an Olympic gold medalist in swimming, is now Zimbabwe’s sports minister.

Athletes who break protest rules at the July 24-Aug. 9 Tokyo Games face three rounds of disciplinary action — by the IOC, a sport’s governing body and a national Olympic body.

The new guidelines come after two American athletes were reprimanded by the U.S. Olympic Committee for medal podium protests at the Pan American Games in August in Lima, Peru.

Fencer Race Imboden kneeled and hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised a fist in protest. Both were put on probation for 12 months, a period that covers the Tokyo Olympics.

Other protests in 2019 included swimmers from Australia and Britain refusing to join world championship gold medalist Sun Yang on the podium because the Chinese star has been implicated in doping violations.

A political gesture at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics went unpunished in the men’s marathon. Silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa crossed his wrists at the finish line to show support with freedom-seeking protesters in his home region of Ethiopia.

“It is a fundamental principle that sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference,” the IOC document states, urging “the focus for the field of play and related ceremonies must be on celebrating athletes’ performance.”

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MORE: Smith, Carlos part of U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame class

Olympic Opening Ceremony Parade of Nations order changed slightly

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The Opening Ceremony Parade of Nations will look slightly different in Tokyo on July 24.

Greece, which traditionally marches in first as the nation that founded the Olympics, will now be followed by the Refugee Olympic Team, which debuted in Rio.

The Refugee team, which marches under the Olympic Flag, moves up some 200 places in the marching order. In 2016, the refugee team was next to last, just before the host nation Brazil.

In Tokyo, the refugee team will be followed by the usual order of nations in alphabetical order. Then in another change, future Olympic hosts will be moved to the end of the order, just before host nation Japan.

The last three nations to march will be the U.S. (2028 Olympic host Los Angeles), France (2024 Olympic host Paris) and Japan.

“To increase the special focus that future hosts already enjoy over the course of their Games preparations by giving them prominence in the stadium and, obviously, with a global audience of several billion,” IOC spokesperson Mark Adams said. “Equally, with the Refugee Olympic Team, we want to give that some big prominence.”

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