‘An avalanche that can’t be controlled’ – IOC urged to rethink Olympic protests ban

The Olympic body should soften its position on political protests in the wake of the of Black Lives Matter movement or risk being viewed as out of touch, sports marketing and talent management experts warn.

A mural of the seminal protests by US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics (©GettyImages)
A mural of the seminal protests by US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics (©GettyImages)

Under current rules, athletes who ‘take a knee’ in solidarity with anti-racism protests during the postponed Tokyo Olympic Games next year could face a ban, despite other sporting bodies – including FIFA and the NFL – removing sanctions in the wake of George Floyd’s tragic death and the anti-racism marches it has triggered.

Yesterday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach said consultations between athletes’ groups around the world were under way.

“The IOC Executive Board supports the initiative of the IOC athletes’ commission to explore different ways for athletes to express support for the principles enshrined in the Olympic charter in a dignified way,” Bach said at a news conference.

Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter bans political protests during the Olympic Games; the IOC positions the Olympic movement as being free of political, religious or any other type of interference.

However, the outrage sparked by Floyd’s death and the groundswell of solidarity, including from many high-profile athletes, could force the IOC to allow some forms of peaceful protest.

Liverpool FC stars take a knee in memory of George Floyd at Anfield. (Credit: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via GettyImages)

Simon Oliveira, managing director of KIN Partners, has represented David Beckham, Usain Bolt, Neymar Jr, Lewis Hamilton and Andy Murray, among other sports stars.

He told PRWeek: “This is an avalanche that can’t be controlled.

“Clearly the strength of feeling, on a global level, has persuaded many leagues, federations, governing bodies and brands associated with sport to change their positioning and make commitments to ensuring all voices are heard and supported, moving forwards.

“The IOC risks appearing out of touch if they continue to pursue a zero-tolerance approach, especially when so many athletes have been empowered to speak out against racism. There is no doubt athletes will continue to display activism around the event, both physically and via social media.”

Oliveira believes that more athletes and influential voices will place pressure on the IOC if it is not prepared to change course.

Oliveira and Alexander believe the IOC should soften its position on political protests at next year's Olympics

Calacus managing director David Alexander believes the protests represent a golden opportunity for the Olympic movement to live up to its ideals.

“Clearly, if athletes take the knee en masse, as has been demonstrated by a wide range of other sports in recent days, the IOC Disciplinary Commission could find themselves particularly busy unless they relax their rules,” he said, pointing out that the IOC has left the door open to compromise.

“What greater opportunity to promote the inclusivity of the Olympic movement, its belief in creating a 'better world', than by supporting and collaborating with the campaign to ensure equality for all.”

Pitch Marketing Group founding partner Henry Chappell said if the IOC maintains its policy to ban athletes from protesting in the field of play, it would be “world-class idiocy”. 

“It would magnify any protest by an athlete, and place the Olympic movement in direct opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement,” Chappell said.

“To illustrate how contentious this would be, it mirrors Donald Trump’s view for how the NFL should have dealt with their players taking a knee. And aligning yourself with Donald Trump is obviously not a great PR strategy.”

He added that the Olympic Games movement needs to evolve to stay relevant and engaged with younger generations.

It appears that pressure for reform could come from within the Olympic family, with the New Zealand Olympic Committee supporting the rights of athletes to speak up.

There has been widespread support from athletes, particularly black sport stars. Several Premier League footballers have ‘taken a knee’ in training sessions, boxer Anthony Joshua joined protests in Watford, and other stars have expressed support via social media.

As Oliveira points out, when the IOC announced its latest iteration of Rule 50 in January, US football star Megan Rapinoe immediately took to Instagram to declare: “We will not be silenced.”

The growing chorus of protests sparked by Floyd’s death could well force the IOC’s hand in allowing athletes to stand in solidarity with the causes that matter to them once the Olympic flame is lit in Tokyo next July.

This article was updated at 1pm on 11 June to include comments by Pitch Marketing Group founding patner Henry Chappell.

PRWeek UK is committed to having a more diverse selection of commentators in our articles, and is compiling a list of BME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) PR professionals who are willing to be quoted. To be added to the list, please email john.harrington@haymarket.com and include your specialist areas of expertise, and/or preferred subjects for commentary. 

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