American shot-putter Raven Saunders not only won a silver medal on Sunday, she lodged a very public protest: raising her arms in a striking “X” shape on the winner’s podium.
Asked afterward what the gesture meant, the 25-year-old explained, it was meant to represent “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.”
The Olympics bans political statements during competition or on the winners podium, setting up a potential clash between the athlete and sporting authorities. Ms Saunders is known for being a colorful personality.
During the Games and the Olympic trials, she often sported a multi-colored shaved head and face masks with different comic book characters like The Hulk and The Joker.
After winning on Sunday, she did a joyful miniature dance routine.
On a more serious note, she has also been outspoken about her struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, and the need for LGBTQ+ individuals like herself to embrace talking about mental health.
Not long after Ms Saunders made the X symbol, another American athlete, made a similar gesture on the podium.
When US fencer Race Imboden took the podium at a different venue to collect his bronze medal, he had a X with a circle around it drawn on his hand, which wasn’t present during the competition. It’s unclear what fate awaits these outspoken athletes. The IOC, which organises the games, doesn’t allow protests during the competition, though the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee has recently changed its own policies on the matter, declining to punish competitors for exercising their speech rights unless they’re being hateful.
Ms Saunders and Mr Imboden could have their medals stripped or be barred from competition.So far, more so than the competition itself, the main story of this games has been athletes being candid and personal.
Superstar gymnast Simone Biles rocked the sporting world when she pulled out of the women’s gymnastics team final on Tuesday, citing concerns about her mental and physical health. “For anyone saying I quit, I didn’t quit, my body and head are simply not in sync,” she wrote on social media at the time. I don’t think you realise how dangerous this is on a hard competition surface.
Before the Games even began, there was another major story about athletics and mental health: US sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was banned from competition, after using marijuana during the Olympic trials following the news that her biological mother had just died.
Numerous Americans and high-profile figures, including President Biden, rallied in her defence, applauding her for speaking out.
Commentators lauded Ms Biles, Richardson, as well as tennis star Naomi Osaka, for encouraging women of colour to be open about their struggles with mental health, marking a major culture shift from when athletes, especially people of colour, in past generations were told to “stick to sports.” US runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos, both of whom are Black, were famously expelled from the Games in 1968 after they raised a Black Power fist during a medal ceremony.