Olympics chief warns against ‘divisive’ athlete protests in Tokyo

The president of the International Olympic Committee has warned athletes against political protests at the upcoming Tokyo games, calling on them to avoid “divisive” statements that could overshadow the world’s biggest sporting event.

Thomas Bach told the Financial Times that the games, which begin next Friday, would be “by far the most complex and most difficult ever,” having been delayed a year due to the pandemic and only taking place with strict coronavirus-related restrictions

But the IOC boss, a former Olympic fencing champion for Germany, also wants to avoid controversies, saying he would not support athlete activism during the games’ most high-profile occasions.

“The podium and the medal ceremonies are not made . . . for a political or other demonstration,” Bach said. “They are made to honour the athletes and the medal winners for sporting achievement and not for their private [views].”

Japan’s Naomi Osaka wears a face mask during the 2020 US Open drawing attention to the shooting of African-American Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia © Al Bello/Getty Images

Over the past year, amid a global reckoning over racial and social injustice, athletes have been at the forefront of protest movements.

European footballers and US basketball players have “taken the knee” before matches in a gesture against racism. Naomi Osaka, the Japanese tennis star who the Tokyo organisers hope to present as the global face of the games, has also been a vocal critic of police brutality.

In recent weeks, the IOC has amended its rules to allow for some dissent, such as at press conferences and on social media. But protests remain forbidden on the field of play, in particular on medal podiums where one of the most famous athlete protests of all time — the raised fists of US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 games — took place.

“The mission is to have the entire world together at one place and competing peacefully with each other,” Bach said. “This you would never manage if the games [became] divisive.” 

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach is a German former fencing champion © Behrouz Mehri/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Olympic officials say privately that curtailing dissent will be impossible to enforce. Such acts have already taken place in the run-up to Tokyo, such as during an US Olympic trials last month when hammer thrower Gwen Berry turned her back on the US flag and draped a T-shirt over her head which read “Activist Athlete.”

This week, the British women’s football team said they would take the knee before Olympics matches.

Political protests are just one of the difficult issues facing the organisers. The event is deeply unpopular with Tokyo’s citizens, according to recent surveys. There has been public outrage at apparent instances of Olympic officials breaking mask-wearing rules in a city under a state of emergency for the Games.

About 11,000 Olympic and 4,400 Paralympic athletes will travel to the Japanese capital in the coming weeks, alongside 41,000 coaches, judges and other officials. They will be stay in a “bubble” away from the city’s public. Overseas visitors are banned and the action will take place without spectators in Tokyo’s expensively constructed stadiums.

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Bach defended the decision to continue with the games with such restrictions, saying it would be a “tremendous showcase for Japan” to the billions watching on television, as well as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of those competing.

He rejected the notion that the games were going ahead to protect broadcasting and sponsorship income, which was worth $5.7bn in the four years running up the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro. 

The IOC president said it would have been financially prudent to cancel the games and rely on its pandemic insurance policies, but “we would not abandon the athletes”. 

In recent weeks, other big sporting events, such as the European football championships, the Wimbledon tennis tournament and even baseball matches in Japan have been played in front of large crowds. 

England football players take the knee before a Euro 2020 match © Justin Tallis/EPA/Shutterstock

Bach admitted he was “not happy” that Japanese authorities have decided to ban spectators but added: “we supported this decision . . . because we think it’s a responsible decision to ensure safe Olympic Games.” The event consists of 28 different sports taking place in 17 days across Japan. 

To help reduce the chances of a coronavirus outbreak, the IOC struck deals with pharmaceutical company Pfizer and the Chinese government to ensure about 85 per cent of athletes, coaches and team officials will be vaccinated ahead of their arrival in Tokyo. Organisers also plan to conduct hundreds of thousands of daily Covid-19 tests on athletes.

Bach said there was a complex plan in place that could mean multiple medals being handed out in an event disrupted by positive tests. In the scenario in which an athlete was unable to compete in a final after testing positive or who was forced into self-isolation, they would receive the lowest rank achievable in that final.

In combat sports such as boxing and karate, that could mean two athletes receiving a silver medal — one for the person who qualified for the final but could not compete, and the other to the athlete who actually lost the gold medal bout. This would “do justice to [both] athletes as one must be isolated,” he said.

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