The separation of sports and politics has long been one of the most carefully protected, and fiercely debated, values of the Olympic Games. Rules exist to police that divide, and athletes have been punished — and even ejected from the Games — for breaking them.
But on Friday, in a move reflecting the influence of a remarkable, ongoing outpouring of activism from athletes, the International Olympic Committee released new guidelines offering Olympians a chance to “express their views” on the field of play before the start of a competition, including during athlete introductions.
Under the new rules, athletes competing this month at the Summer Games in Tokyo now will theoretically be allowed to wear an article of clothing (a shirt with a slogan or a glove, for example) or make a symbolic gesture (like kneeling or raising a fist) to express their views on an issue before the start of their events.
They still will not be allowed to conduct any sort of demonstration on the field of play, on the podium during medal ceremonies, in the Olympic athletes’ village or at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games.
It was a small but symbolically significant concession, softening the I.O.C.’s longstanding rule against protest at the Games, but it fell short of what many athletes, including many from the United States, had called for in recent months.
It was, however, notable, particularly considering that the I.O.C. earlier this year had reaffirmed its ban on protests and political messages at the Olympics after growing calls from broad segments of its athlete population for more leniency on such issues. But the organization had also signaled a desire to look for new and creative ways to allow for self-expression, and it apparently found one.
Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which had long outlawed any “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” at the Games, has come under repeated scrutiny over previous Olympic cycles, and more intensely over the past year.
The I.O.C.’s firm stance against any forms of protest or activism had seemed to put it at odds with rapidly changing attitudes across the sports world, particularly in North America, where scores of athletes — everywhere from the professional ranks to small town high schools — felt compelled to join the broader protest movement against racism and police brutality that filled the streets of American cities last summer and soon spread around the world.
In December, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee announced that it would no longer punish American athletes for political expression in competition or on the medal podium, reversing its own longstanding policy against athlete activism. That decision came as professional leagues in North America and Europe have over the past year proactively carved out time and space for their own athletes to conduct displays of support for certain causes, like kneeling during a national anthem or before the start of play.
Last month at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Ore., the sprinter Noah Lyles wore a black glove and raised his fist in the air when his name was announced before a 100-meter race. The gesture was a reference to the famous demonstration by the American Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos during a medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Games.
“We’re still dying in the streets,” Lyles told reporters after the race. “Just because we stopped talking about it in the news or just because the Olympics are going on, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. I am Black.”
Lyle’s gesture, under the rules released on Friday, would be allowed at the Olympics that officially open July 23 in Tokyo.
The potential for friction remains, however. The I.O.C. clarified that any demonstration must not be disruptive or seen to interfere with another athlete’s preparations for competition, and it is unclear how it would handle complaints from athletes who object to certain gestures or acts of protest at the Games.
The I.O.C. is also counting on athletes to be satisfied expressing their views in a single, sanctioned space.
“While the guidelines offer new opportunities for athletes to express themselves prior to the competition, they preserve the competitions on the field of play, the ceremonies, the victory ceremonies and the Olympic Village,” Kirsty Coventry, the chair of the I.O.C.’s athletes’ commission, said in a statement. “This was the wish of a big majority of athletes in our global consultation.”
In April, the I.O.C. pointed to a survey of around 3,500 athletes around the world conducted by its athletes’ commission that showed roughly 70 percent of them believed it was “not appropriate to demonstrate or express their views” on the field of play or at the opening or closing ceremony. The same study from the IOC also showed that 67 percent of athlete respondents disapproved of demonstrations during medal ceremonies.