USOPC chief executive Sarah Hirshland says an athlete-led group will be established ©Getty Images

United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) chief executive Sarah Hirshland has announced the organisation will create an "athlete-led group" which will challenge the organisation's rules, including athletes' right to protest.

The pledge comes following a USOPC town hall meeting last week, which was organised in response to widespread protests over the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers and fresh discussions about racism in the US.

It was billed by Hirshland, who wrote to athletes, as a forum "where you can openly discuss how you have been impacted personally, listen to each other, learn from each other, and support each other".

The forum had taken place amid criticism of the USOPC, with focus on the Black Lives Matter movement also reigniting controversy over athletes' rights to protest.

Fencer Race Imboden and hammer thrower Gwen Berry were both placed on a one-year probation last year after staging separate podium protests at the Lima 2019 Pan American Games.

Imboden knelt during a medal ceremony in protest at racism, gun control, the mistreatment of immigrants and President Donald Trump.

Berry raised her fist at the end of her medal ceremony, an act which mirrored sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium at the Mexico City 1968 Olympic Games, to protest racial injustice.

Hirshland has written to athletes to say a group will now be established to challenge rules and systems within the organisation.

She said the decision comes after she heard from hundreds of athletes, while she has apologised for the organisation's failure to listen to the "decades you have spoken about equality and unity and sacrificed your moment on the podium to call for change".

"It is time to match your courage," Hirshland wrote.

"To listen and to understand.

"To do the work.

"To accept that addressing racial injustice is everyone's concern, every day.

"To remove the barriers, to change the rules, and to empower black voices to be heard.

"Today, I am creating an athlete-led group to challenge the rules and systems in our own organisation that create barriers to progress, including your right to protest.

"We will also advocate for change globally.

"All Team USA athletes who are interested in participating are welcome.

"Today is just a start.

"We will continue to listen and will evolve our actions as we hear from you and together find the best ways to effect change."

It is unclear as to whether the athlete-led group will differ to the USOPC Athletes' Advisory Council, whose remit is to "communicate the interests and protect the rights of athletes, in cooperative support of the USOPC achieving its mission".

Hirshland's comments potentially could suggest the USOPC may advocate for changes or the removal of the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) Rule 50.

The IOC earlier this year published guidelines around political protests at the Olympic Games.

The IOC Athletes' Commission produced the guidelines to differentiate between protests and "expressing views" regarding Rule 50.

Rule 50 states: "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

The guidelines, published following a joint meeting of the IOC Executive Board and the Athletes' Commission, prohibit protests and demonstrations at "all Olympic venues", including medal ceremonies, the field of play and the Olympic Village.

The guidelines proved controversial, although the IOC has claimed it was not restricting freedom of speech, with athletes able to espouse their views in interviews and on social media.

The widespread protests following Floyd's death, during which many athletes have spoken out and joined demonstrations, have already led to changing of stances in the US.

The National Football League (NFL) – the biggest sports league in the country – has reversed its controversial rule which prevented players from kneeling during the national anthem.

"We were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said.

Imboden's decision to kneel was inspired by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began kneeling during the anthem to protest police brutality and racism in 2016 but has since found himself without a team.

Kaepernick took NFL owners to court and accused them of collusion – with the two parties reaching an out-of-court settlement.