Nancy Gillen

The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) stance on political neutrality and podium protests has caused something of a stir recently.

Much has been discussed and written on the subject, encouraged by President Thomas Bach’s repeated words of discouragement to athletes thinking of promoting a political message at Tokyo 2020.

Any athlete that show anything other than political neutrality could face punishment, apparently. The response to this has been disparaging, condemning the IOC for such a seemingly hypocritical stance.

Even for those in agreement with the IOC, the furore has now created an atmosphere which will see everyone wait with bated breath each time an athlete stands atop a medal podium during the three weeks of the Games.

It is the question that is not going to disappear in the now seven-month lead-up to Tokyo 2020 - will an athlete go against the repeated warnings of the IOC and stage a podium protest?

Sixty per cent of insidethegames readers think there will be one, according to a poll we are currently running. I would be intrigued to see the response if asked whether they had a particular athlete in mind.

To stage such a protest, an athlete would have to be unafraid of making political statements or headlines and comfortable going against those in charge. At the same time, it will need to be an athlete who is likely to achieve a significant amount of success at Tokyo 2020. 

Megan Rapinoe criticised the IOC's stance on political neutrality Tokyo 2020 on social media ©Twitter
Megan Rapinoe criticised the IOC's stance on political neutrality Tokyo 2020 on social media ©Twitter

Athletes will only be able to stage an effective protest if they have the platform and the eyes of the world on them.

My own answer came to me as I was scrolling through Twitter at the height of the reaction to the IOC’s latest warning. I saw yet another post from an athlete criticising the organisation’s stance. The athlete in question was American footballer Megan Rapinoe.

Rapinoe had posted an image of the five Olympic rings, each encircling a clenched fist.

"So much being done about the protests. So little being done about what we are protesting about. We will not be silenced," Rapinoe had written below. 

It had completely slipped my mind that Rapinoe is likely to be competing at Tokyo 2020. What’s more, she could very easily be standing on top of the podium for the women’s football competition.

The United States are yet to book a place at Tokyo 2020, but should easily win the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship beginning later this month. Once at the Olympics, the four-time winners are the firm favourites, having claimed the world title just last year in France.

And of course Rapinoe. Rapinoe, with her shock of pink hair, who refused to visit President of the United States Donald Trump at the White House after their World Cup triumph. 

Megan Rapinoe has refused to sing the United States national anthem since 2016 ©Getty Images
Megan Rapinoe has refused to sing the United States national anthem since 2016 ©Getty Images

Her statement on social media was as uncompromising as always, and suggests the IOC may really have something to worry about with Rapinoe. 

Before we even get to the question of a podium protest, Rapinoe has refused to sing the American national anthem before every match since 2016. This is in support of compatriot Colin Kaepernick, who takes the knee during the national anthem to protest alleged racism and police brutality in the US. 

As Rapinoe's words suggest, it does not sound like she is going to have a change of heart just for the Olympics. If she continues to refuse to sing the national anthem at the Games, this constitutes a political protest. 

To make the situation worse, the group stage of the women's football competition begins on July 22, two days before the start of Tokyo 2020. The IOC could have a protest on their hands before the Games even get under way properly.

And what could the organisation even do? The reason I forgot that Rapinoe would be at Tokyo 2020 is because the majority of her career is completely separate from the Olympics. 

Unlike a lot of athletes, for which the Olympics are the pinnacle of their career, the Games is just one more tournament in a congested four-year cycle of events for Rapinoe. 

She is now 34-years-old and so is unlikely to be playing at Paris 2024. She already has an Olympic gold medal from London 2012. What could the IOC genuinely do to deter Rapinoe from standing up for her beliefs, as she has always done? 

Megan Rapinoe encouraged other athletes to speak out when she received her FIFA Best Player of the Year award ©Getty Images
Megan Rapinoe encouraged other athletes to speak out when she received her FIFA Best Player of the Year award ©Getty Images

Up until now, Rapinoe has been applauded for her actions, winning countless awards which have as much to do with what she has done off the pitch as on it. 

When receiving such accolades, such as the Ballon d'Or, Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year or FIFA Best Player of the Year, Rapinoe has again used her platform to speak out on issues important to her. She also took the opportunity to encourage her fellow athletes to do the same. 

"We have a unique opportunity in football, different to any other sport in the world, to use this beautiful game to actually change the world for better," Rapinoe said at the FIFA Best award ceremony. 

"That’s my charge to everyone. I hope you take that to heart and just do something. Do anything."

The footballer is celebrated for being so outspoken, and this will not change for the Olympics. Any punishment directed towards Rapinoe is likely to incur criticism for the IOC. 

Her actions may also give fellow athletes courage to take a stand, potentially triggering a domino effect that could see the IOC's attempt to eradicate politics from the Olympics crumble.

I will be watching Rapinoe earnestly throughout Tokyo 2020. The IOC have inadvertently created her biggest platform yet, and she is sure to take advantage of this.