On Thursday, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee announced that – going forward – it will not sanction athletes for demonstrating in support of racial and social justice.
It is a large shift for the organization, given that just last year, the USOPC put two American athletes on probation for violating Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which states that “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
The most well-known example of Olympic protest – and punishment – occurred at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the podium – and were then suspended and sent home by the USOPC.
More recently, though, hammer thrower Gwendolyn Berry and fencer Race Imboden protested during their medal ceremonies at the 2019 Pan American Games. Both Berry and Imboden were publicly reprimanded by the USOPC and placed on probation.
Amid a changing landscape of athlete activism and social justice, Berry and Imboden’s punishment quickly appeared hypocritical. Just three months after they demonstrated, Smith and Carlos were inducted into the USOPC’s Hall of Fame.
As part of Thursday’s announcement, USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland apologized for the treatment all four athletes had received. In a letter to Team USA athletes, she wrote, “In considering all that has transpired on our journey to this point, I would be remiss to not address the experiences of Team USA athletes Dr. John Carlos, Dr. Tommie Smith, Gwen Berry, and Race Imboden, whose peaceful and courageous protests were met with reprimand or indifference. It is clear now that this organization should have supported instead of condemned, and advocated for understanding instead of relying on previous precedent. For that, I apologize, and look forward to a future where rules are clear, intentions are better understood, and voices are empowered.”
Berry celebrated the news on Instagram.
Still, Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter remains in place for now, and yesterday’s USOPC announcement does not automatically undo past losses.
Berry believes her protest caused her to lose 80 percent of her income – a result of lost sponsorships and grants. While it is possible that Berry’s results also played a role in lost financial opportunities – she failed to record a clean throw in the final of the 2019 World Championships after entering the competition as a medal contender – the two issues of protest and performance aren’t entirely separate, either.
After her protest, Berry says she became “afraid to fail.”
“I put that baggage and that stress on myself – and so I kind of failed,” she told On Her Turf last week. “People wanted me to feel ashamed of what I did and the stance that I took, and they were winning at the end of last year… I was literally on the verge of quitting.”
The logistics of financing an Olympic career can be difficult enough, even without the added challenges of lost sponsorships or competitions cancelled due to COVID-19. Like many track & field athletes, Berry is responsible for paying for travel to competitions, discipline-specific coaching, and strength and conditioning training.
When her sponsorships dwindled, Berry says she got by with the support of her family and friends. Her coach Matthew Horneman – who she has worked with since 2018 – has been helping in a volunteer capacity.
“When [people] hear ‘Olympic athlete,’ they think you’re rich and you’re famous… I actually probably get paid below the poverty line.”
In recent months, several new funding opportunities have emerged. In September, Color of Change, a nonprofit dedicated to racial justice, announced that Berry would become its first sponsored athlete.
Then in November, Berry was awarded a travel and training fund grant by the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF). Berry says she will use the award to pay for travel to competitions in the lead-up to next summer’s U.S. Olympic Trials.
Looking ahead to the Tokyo Olympics, Berry says she no longer feels as stressed as she did in the immediate aftermath of her protest.
“When you’re loved and you’re supported and you feel safe, you can accomplish anything,” she explained. “It’s going to be an honor to represent and fight for the people who love and support me.”Follow @AlexAzziNBC