At the US Olympic Track and Field trials in June, hammer thrower Gwen Berry earned a spot on her second Olympic team, placing third in her event. She also became a face of athlete activism to many. She raised her fist when she was introduced before the hammer throw, and when she was on the podium, she turned around and draped a T-shirt that said “activist athlete” over her head.
Berry emerged as a visible activist athlete in 2019, when she won gold at the Pan American Games and raised her fist on the podium, near the end of the national anthem. She did it to draw attention to racial injustice in the U.S. that doesn’t get enough attention, she said. “You can see the racial wealth gap, you can see voter suppression, you can see that Black communities don’t have resources, like grocery stores, water, and access to public transportation.”
Berry’s silent demonstration violated the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) prohibition on athletes’ demonstrations, so the body reprimanded her and put her on probation for a year. It did the same to fencer Race Imboden, who took a knee on the podium. Some of Berry’s corporate sponsors dropped her.
Since then, the USOPC has stopped sanctioning athletes for such demonstrations, and it specified that they could raise a fist or kneel at the Olympic trials without being punished. It also specified that athletes can wear clothing displaying messages such as ‘Black Lives Matter’.
In the months leading up to the Olympic trials, Berry and all the other athletes knew they could demonstrate peacefully without fear of punishment from the USOPC. “I feel like it gives the athletes a strong sense of support, saying, ‘We do care about your lives, we do care about you, in and out of the sport,’” Berry said.
At the trials, sprinter Noah Lyles raised a gloved fist when he was introduced before the 100m final. Heptathlete and 100m hurdler Taliyah Brooks wore “Black Lives Matter” patches on her uniform in some of her events.
The rules will be different at the Tokyo Olympics.
The USOPC’s shift came after the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice recommended allowing silent, peaceful demonstrations, arguing that banning them violates athletes’ rights to free speech and freedom of expression. Team USA athletes had voiced concern, particularly about Berry being punished. The council asked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to reconsider its ban on these demonstrations, but the IOC upheld the ban in April.
The IOC’s Rule 50 says that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted” at any Olympic venue. The International Paralympic Committee has a similar rule. But, Berry and other American athletes have argued, kneeling or raising a fist is not about politics – it’s about human rights. “Peaceful protest is a basic human right,” Berry said.
On 2 July, shortly after the Olympic trials, the IOC revised its guidelines to allow athletes to demonstrate before the start of their event. But they still can’t demonstrate on the podium, on the field of play, at the opening or closing ceremony, or in the Olympic Village. They also can’t wear anything that says ‘Black Lives Matter’.
This adjustment isn’t enough, Berry said. “The risk of the penalty remains the same. So if athletes do decide to protest in their moment, the penalty is, without a doubt, too much.”
The risk of violating the IOC rule is too high for some athletes, Brooks said. “I know a lot of athletes probably would want to, but they know if they do that, they’ll lose everything that they have.” She added, “I hope that they change those rules, because then you’re making an athlete choose between sport and a lifelong dream, or bringing awareness to something that is affecting them, or maybe affecting a friend or family member.”
The Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice argued that Rule 50’s specific bans on kneeling and raising a fist target Black athletes and go against Olympic and Paralympic values.
The Olympic Charter states: “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
At the trials, after the hammer throw finals, Berry and the first- and second-place finishers were ushered onto the podium, where they would be introduced to the crowd, pose for photos briefly, and step down. At the Olympics, the gold medalist’s national anthem is played while they stand on the podium, but that doesn’t happen at the trials. The national anthem is played at the start of each evening’s session, not for each event’s medalists.
So when the three women stepped up and the anthem started playing, Berry was caught off guard. “We were told that we will be introduced to the crowd, either before the playing of the national anthem or after the playing of the national anthem,” Berry said. “I would not have stood on the podium if they played the national anthem, just because that would have been my preference.”
She shifted on her feet, turned around, and then draped the shirt over her head. Berry thought someone played the anthem at that moment to create controversy, “because they knew that I would react,” she said. “I didn’t turn my back to the flag. I turned every which way, because I was so upset.Gwen Berry Photograph: AP/Charlie Riedel
When Berry’s reaction made headlines, she came under widespread public criticism. But the critics calling her anti-American are getting it wrong, she said. “I am trying to fight for a better America for everybody,” she said. “That doesn’t make me anti-American. If anything, it makes me more American, because I really want freedom and justice for everybody.”
Before the trials, Berry signed with a new sponsor that supports her activism: Puma. This match was made by the nonprofit racial justice organization Color of Change. Last year, Color of Change launched its first athletic sponsorship to support Berry financially, and then it brought some major brands to the table to consider sponsoring her.
“As we watched her bravery and then watched the attacks against her, we thought that this would be not just an excellent moment to support someone who had taken a risk and taken a stand, but also send a message to corporations that, far too often, virtue-signal and commodify blackness, through their statements or through their advertising, while not actually standing up when the moment truly presents itself,” said Color of Change president Rashad Robinson.
Robinson said he hopes other corporations “will take the lead from what we’ve done here, what Puma has done, and support athletes as their full selves – and support Black athletes as their full selves.” He added, “I think that [Puma] deserves some credit for stepping in where others actually stepped back.”
Racial inequity in the current context of the Olympics and Black women athletes also includes Sha’Carri Richardson being barred from the Olympics, the Soul Cap swim cap being banned from the Olympics, and two Namibian women sprinters being banned from the Olympics for naturally high testosterone levels. These things strengthen Berry’s motivation to take a stand, she said.
“Sometimes folks will say things like, ‘the rules are the rules.’ But that doesn’t mean that the rules are fair,” Robinson said. “Society has had to change the rules over and over again to create more justice and more opportunity.” Color of Change is trying to get the IOC to abolish Rule 50.
How exactly Team USA athletes who violate Rule 50 in Tokyo will be punished remains unclear, because the USOPC is normally the entity exerting the discipline, but violations will be reviewed case by case.
Brooks said that Berry’s advocacy – along with that of Colin Kaepernick, John Carlos, and Muhammad Ali – has allowed other athletes to be less afraid to use their platform.
“There’s strength in numbers,” Berry said. “And if we all speak out against these issues, and we use our voices to express how we feel, in and out of the sport, I think that’s when we begin to create change…. One person can’t change enough, but 10 can. And 100 really can.”
At the trials, Brooks wore Black Lives Matter patches on her uniform in the first round of the 100m hurdles and in some of her heptathlon events. She didn’t get to finish the heptathlon because she collapsed on the track in the extreme heat, and competition was postponed shortly afterward.
Brooks has been wearing Black Lives Matter patches in competitions all year, after getting the OK from her sponsor, Asics, she said. “It’s not political, but I think people choose to make it political to get away from the actual topic itself.”
Last year, after Brooks and fellow University of Arkansas track and field athlete Markus Ballengee attended a protest following George Floyd’s murder, they commissioned artists to create a “No Justice, No Peace” mural in Fayetteville and held a community event unveiling it that included voter registration, a speech from the city mayor, and other activities. “We just really wanted to do something in our town to bring awareness but have a lasting impact,” she said.
The US saw an outpouring of support for Black communities after George Floyd’s murder, but not enough has changed since then, Berry said. “The point is, there needs to be more attention on what’s going on in America, with the racial wealth gap and all of these issues that we still haven’t fixed.”
Berry is looking forward to Tokyo, but also beyond it. After the Olympics, “whatever I can do to further help Black communities, that’s what I’m going to do – whether it be speaking engagements or grassroots community work,” she said. “America is extremely capable of sticking to its notion of freedom and justice for us all.”