Nancy Gillen

Tokyo was one of the first cities to bring in the New Year, but the start of 2020 had more significance for the Japanese capital than most other places.

It marked the beginning of the Olympic Year, of course, with the Games now just seven months away.

Preparations are going well, highlighted by the recent opening of the newly constructed National Stadium. The venue hosted its first event last week, with Japanese football team Vissel Kobe triumphing in the final of the Emperor’s Cup.

As always, there are some concerns about the upcoming Games. The main one revolves around the issue of heat, and whether athletes are going to be able to cope with the oppressive conditions in Tokyo during July and August.

This reached its pinnacle when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) moved the women’s marathon and race walk events to Sapporo, seemingly without consulting either Tokyo 2020 or the athletes. With a number of other heat-prevention measures set to be introduced, expect the discussion around temperatures to rumble on until the Games itself.

There is another concern, however, which was recently voiced by IOC President Thomas Bach in his New Year message.

He warned athletes against protesting in any form at Tokyo 2020, reiterating a declaration sent out by the Olympic Summit last month, which criticised the apparent "growing politicisation of sport".

IOC President Thomas Bach warned against podium protests at Tokyo 2020 in his New Year message ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach warned against podium protests at Tokyo 2020 in his New Year message ©Getty Images

"The Olympic Games are always a global platform for the athletes and their sporting performances," Bach said.

"They are not, and must never be, a platform to advance political or any other potentially divisive ends.

"We stand firmly against the growing politicisation of sport because only in this way can we accomplish our mission to unite the world in peaceful competition.

"As history has shown, such politicisation of sport leads to no result and in the end just deepens existing divisions.

"Athletes have an essential role to play in respecting this political neutrality on the field of play.

"It is important to note in this regard that there is broad support and understanding among a great majority of athletes that the field of play and ceremonies should not become an arena for political statements or any kind of protests.

"Respecting one’s fellow athletes also means respecting their unique Olympic moment and not distracting from it with one’s own political views."

An interesting statement from Bach, one which many would argue is full of hypocrisy. There is a fine line between sport and politics, a topic which was discussed in a Big Read last month.

His words raise another issue, however. The IOC have issued repeated warnings about podium protests, but what will they actually do if an athlete goes against them?

Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s protest at Mexico City 1968 is now viewed as a brave and significant act but they were initially punished ©Getty Images
Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s protest at Mexico City 1968 is now viewed as a brave and significant act but they were initially punished ©Getty Images

According to Athletes’ Commission chair Kirsty Coventry, there is no appetite among athletes for podium protests at Tokyo 2020.

She told the Association of National Olympic Committees General Assembly that she had spoken to athletes through a variety of different channels, and claimed conference call in October had shown there was strong feeling among athletes that protests should take place away from medal ceremonies and the field of play.

This seems like something of a generalisation. Around 10,000 athletes are expected to participate at the upcoming Olympics, while an estimate of 5,000 will be competing at the Paralympics.

All it takes is for one athlete to stage a podium protest, and the IOC has put itself in a tricky situation. The organisation has set up an expectancy that athletes who do so will be punished, but risk damaging their reputation if they take a tough stance.

An obvious example is Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s protest at Mexico City 1968. The clenched black-gloved fists of both athletes are now synonymous with the civil rights movement and viewed as a brave and significant act. 

At the time, however, the IOC expelled Smith and Carlos from the Games, doing the same four years later when American athletes Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett refused to stand for their national anthem at Munich 1972.

The IOC’s actions did not fall on the right side of history, subsequently damaging the organisation’s reputation.

Perhaps that is why it has been more lax recently on political gestures. Ethiopian marathon runner and Olympic silver medallist Feyisa Liles crossed his arms in a gesture used to oppose the Ethiopian Government’s police crackdowns on protests when he crossed the line at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, but this went unpunished.

Just last summer, fencer Race Imboden, an Olympic bronze medallist, knelt during the American national anthem and called for change in the United States at the Pan American Games in Lima. 

Hammer thrower Gwen Berry later staged her own protest, raising her right fist at the conclusion of her medal ceremony.

 Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios used his platform at the ATP Cup to raise awareness about the bush fires in his country ©Getty Images
 Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios used his platform at the ATP Cup to raise awareness about the bush fires in his country ©Getty Images

This was not under IOC jurisdiction, but the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee was relatively lenient and placed both athletes on probation following the Games. It did warn that others who make similar stands - including at Tokyo 2020 - would be given harsher punishments, however.

That kind of gesture will indeed be harder to ignore at Tokyo 2020, but especially because of the IOC’s increased rhetoric.

The organisation will be in particular trouble if an athlete uses the podium to protest about something which has a broad consensus behind it.

Take climate change, for instance. More than four million hectares of New South Wales has already burned as bush fires ravage Australia, with scientists having long warned that a hotter, drier climate as a consequence of rising carbon dioxide levels will contribute to bush fires becoming more frequent and intense.

What if an Australian athlete used their platform at Tokyo 2020 to support environmental measures, or protest against the Government’s reported inaction over the catastrophe? Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios has already used the ATP Cup to raise awareness of the unfolding situation. 

Sympathy is currently with the Australian people and punishment over speaking out over an issue such as this would surely cause a great backlash.

The IOC has created the conditions for a significant protest, with the gesture now taking on more gravitas since it is so forbidden. In issuing so many warnings, it has put itself into a situation where it would appear weak not to take any action. 

On the other hand, punishing an athlete for taking a political stance may result in criticism and a damaged reputation. 

It seems as if the IOC and Bach may be doing more harm than good with their repeated warnings over podium protests at Tokyo 2020.