Raven Saunders Olympics

Tokyo 2020: the problematic decision behind Saunders’ near-Olympic ban

Posted by for Wellbeing

Investigations into Raven Saunders’ gesture on the podium have been paused, following the death of her mother. The question is: how can publicly protesting institutional injustice be a problem?

Last night, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to pause an investigation into a US shot putter Raven Saunders after news reached them that her mother had died.

Raven Saunders was under investigation for making an X gesture on the podium after winning a silver medal in the women’s shot put final. The overhead X, she explained to the media scrum post-event, was a sign of the “intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.”

Given the collective trauma experienced in the year that the Tokyo Games has followed; when the world has seen a heightened awareness of racially aggravated murders like those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and reports suggest that 2021 is set to be the most deadly year yet for trans and gender non-conforming Americans, there’s no question as to why Raven’s statement was made. And you’d think, or at least hope, that she was well within her right to take that stand on the international stage.

But unfortunately not; back in April, the IOC announced that they were banning all forms of protest at the Olympics after 67% of competitors polled supported a ban. Raven was in breach of Rule 50 by making the X sign with her arms, and thus, investigations started on 2 August.

Nevertheless, according to the New York Times, Saunders was the first of a group of American athletes who had planned to do the same protest.

These athletes are following in the iconic footsteps of Tommie Smith and John Carlos who made their Black Power salutes at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City when collecting their medals – arguably the most powerful moment in Olympic history.

Yet, moments like that may not happen again (at least legally) because of the ban.

That means that athletes are forbidden from protesting the fact that it’s dangerous to be Black and American right now (the British Medical Journal claims that fatal police shootings of unarmed Black people in the US are more than three times as high as whites). It means that no British athlete could protest the fact that one in five LGBT people have experienced a hate crime in the last 12 months. Female athletes in other countries are not allowed to protest violence against women at the Olympics, one of the most visible and highly recognised platforms in the world.

Billie Jean King, the legendary former tennis player, tweeted that Raven Saunders’ X was “meaningful and respectful” and that there was “nothing for the IOC to investigate.”

And that’s really the point here: how can publicly protesting institutional injustice be a problem? Can we really consider a gesture like Raven’s to be inappropriate given the experiences of people the world over who are currently oppressed and vulnerable?

It’s hard to see the point or benefit of banning gestures like this, if not simply to assert authority over competitors and quiet opportunities to draw attention to important issues.

The sporting world can and should be a platform on which we discuss and highlight issues in the wider world. As we saw with the Euros, sport can play a powerful role in talking and challenging racism. Why should the Olympics be any different? If it’s for fear of offending certain nations, perhaps it’s the IOC who should start examining exactly who these games benefit.

For more Olympics news, follow Strong Women on Instagram (@StrongWomenUK).

Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.