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Raven Saunders of Team United States used her podium moment to send a message.
For years, athletes have chosen to use their Olympic platform to protest inequities and oppression. This year’s Tokyo Olympics is no exception.
Looking back, the most notable protest was at the 1968 Summer Games when United States runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos, with the support of Australian silver medallist Peter Norman, raised their fists in protest while standing on the podium. The gesture was a symbol of Black Power and the greater human rights movement of the time.
Fifty-three years later, US shot putter Raven Saunders also chose to use her silver medal moment on the podium to send a message.
With her arms raised above her head and wrists crossed, Saunders delivered the first political demonstration of the games.
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She on Monday said the protest was planned among her fellow US Olympic athletes over group text as a way to defy regulations set out by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The group, which included unnamed athletes spanning multiple sports, decided to use the X as their symbol. It represented the “intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet”, Saunders said.
The silver medallist chose to send her message at the end of the medal ceremony, which saw China’s Gong Lijiao receive her gold medal and New Zealand’s Dame Valerie Adams a bronze. As she walked away, Saunders told reporters, according to The New York Times, she did it “for oppressed people”.
“I wanted to be respectful of the national anthem being played.”
The 25-year-old woman, who was a proud member of the LGBTQIA+ community, said she wanted to reach “people all around the world who are fighting and don’t have the platform to speak up for themselves”.
Before the games, the IOC had relaxed the rules to allow athletes to “express their views” during news conferences. However, there were still rules in place prohibiting athletes from demonstrating on the podium, with national Olympic bodies tasked with penalising athletes who break the rules.
But the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) took a different stance. It said it wouldn’t punish any athlete for exercising their right to free speech, so long as that speech wasn’t expressing hatred.
Saunders had not been penalised for her demonstration, but the IOC was discussing the incident with other sporting bodies.
The New York Times reported the USOPC had pointed out to IOC officials that the demonstration wasn’t performed during the medal ceremony or while the Chinese anthem was being played. Chief spokesperson Kate Hartman said that was “important to us”.
“Per the USOPC’s delegation terms, the USOPC conducted its own review and determined that Raven Saunders’ peaceful expression in support of racial and social justice that happened at the conclusion of the ceremony was respectful of her competitors and did not violate our rules related to demonstration,” the organisation said in a statement to The New York Times.
Saunders told The Times she wasn’t concerned about any backlash from her demonstration, instead she cemented her views and her actions.
“I stood for what I stood for … I got the medal. “I’m going to stand on what I said and I am going to keep fighting.”
She later told the BBC her generation really didn’t care about potential repercussions.
“At the end of the day, we really don’t care. Shout out to all my black people. Shout out to all my LGBTQ community. Shout out to all my people dealing with mental health. At the end of the day, we understand it’s bigger than us and it’s bigger than the powers that be. We understand that there’s so many people that are looking up to us, that are looking to see if we say something or if we speak up for them.”
US fencer Race Imboden also used his medal moment to join in the demonstration. Rather than making a gesture, he drew a black X in a circle on his hand, which was visible when he held his bronze medal.
Saunders confirmed Imboden was part of the group, but wouldn’t name any of the other athletes taking part so as not to pressure them.
Other American athletes had expressed their intentions to protest if they medalled. This included hammer thrower Gwen Berry and sprinter Noah Lyles. Both weren’t strangers to protesting at sporting events – Berry in June turned away from the American flag at the US track and field trials, and Lyles regularly wears a black glove and raises his first before his races.