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Long-banned athlete protests expected at Tokyo Olympics

TOKYO — Athlete activism is making a comeback at these Olympic Games.

When play starts at the Tokyo Games today, acts of free expression of the kind athletes were long banned from making at the Olympics will take center stage.

The British women’s soccer team has pledged to take a knee before kickoff against Chile in their Olympic tournament opener in Sapporo, to show support for racial justice.

“We want to show to everyone this is something serious,” Britain defender Demi Stokes said. “What a way to do it, on an Olympic stage.”

One hour later in Tokyo, the United States and Sweden should follow in a gesture recognized globally since the murder of George Floyd 14 months ago. The England and Italy men’s teams took a knee before the European Championship final this month.

What is common in modern soccer starts a new era for Olympic athletes more than 50 years after the raised black-gloved fists of American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City made them icons and pariahs.

Still, it is a limited freedom allowed by the International Olympic Committee, which just this month eased its longstanding ban on all athlete protest inside the Games field of play. The change followed two reviews in 18 months by the IOC’s own athletes commission which advised against it.

Gestures are now allowed before races and games start, on the field, and at the start line.

Medal podiums remain off limits for protest, and even the IOC concessions left each sport’s governing body free to retain the ban.

Lawyers who study Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter — that banned any kind of “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” until July 2 — see issues ahead with athletes and the IOC heading on a fast track to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

“I think we can clearly expect some frictions around Rule 50 in the coming weeks,” sports law academic Antoine Duval said when hosting a recent debate on the inevitable athlete activism at Tokyo.

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