Shock or awe, it's a nervous wait for athlete activism at Tokyo Olympics

In the summer before the Tokyo Olympics, this era of athlete activism persists, the protesters and their concerns diversifying. Stick to sports? Nah, stick to living and feeling, not just playing.

The quadrennial Pan American Games hosted the latest round of displays in Lima, Peru. Last Friday, as The Star-Spangled Banner played during the medal ceremony, US fencer Race Imboden took a knee and cited racism, gun control, mistreatment of immigrants and President Donald Trump as his primary grievances. For similar reasons, US hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised a fist a day later near the end of the anthem.

"We must call for change," Imboden wrote on Twitter later.

Next year is an Olympic year, which makes the protests during the Pan Am Games feel like an opening act for activism in Tokyo. Will there be a modern-day act on the level of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics? Could there be many displays that paint the ugly picture of divisiveness in America?

I'm not sure this is leading to that kind of history because the shock value of a protest might not be there with so many athletes having already acted out. It would take something more original and controversial than we've ever seen to have the power to inspire meaningful conversation.

That's why the expectation of protest during the 2020 Olympics must come with a few questions: What kind of protest? From whom? And will it be something new?

It is most likely that, rather than an act, the 2020 Olympics will be defined from an American perspective by certain characters telling their stories, standing up to criticism and emerging victorious whether you like them or not.

Think back to the US women's football team and their World Cup triumph amid a fight for fair pay. Think about Megan Rapinoe unapologetically being herself: a proud lesbian concerned about human rights issues, who performs at the highest level amid the storm.

American Race Imboden taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem at the podium ceremony for the men's foil event at the Pan American Games in Lima. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Rapinoe and her team will be back for an Olympic run. So will the outspoken WNBA players leading women's basketball. There are so many others who will excel and give a human face to issues, and they are impossible to dismiss during the Olympics.

Sometimes, if it's just another copycat protest during the anthem, the story gets portrayed like a matter of accounting. But great characters exhibiting power, excellence and humanity still pierce their way into our consciousness.

For instance, Simone Biles wouldn't fit the traditional definition of a protester. But her dominance is a form of activism, especially as USA Gymnastics continues to pick up the pieces following its infuriating sexual abuse scandal.

By Sunday, she had won her sixth US all-around title and if her breathtaking talent doesn't make you care about her plight and the need to ensure gymnasts aren't preyed upon ever again, you shouldn't have the privilege of watching her compete.

The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee is likely to take extra measures to keep athletes from protesting in Tokyo. Freedom of speech doesn't guarantee freedom from all repercussions. Colin Kaepernick lost his National Football League career because he took a knee. The power of a protest lies in the disobedience, which is supposed to shock people into caring. The price you're willing to pay, no matter how unfair, also confirms the conviction behind your beliefs.

A year ago, during the 50th anniversary of the Smith-Carlos protest, I asked Carlos about how he weighed the risks and rewards of their protest. In 1968, athletes were warned not to make any displays. Almost all of them chose to obey. Smith and Carlos couldn't.

"Yeah, I could have went and kissed a**, cheesed, grinned," Carlos said. "They said, 'Play nice, and we can get you a job. You will make $100,000 a year'. But am I giving up my soul for $100,000 a year? Am I forgetting about my kids? Am I forgetting about my grandkids by selling my soul for a job instead of taking a stand for human rights?"

They were vilified. They lived difficult lives because of their decision. And more than half a century later, history understands them.

They are still polarising, sure. They also have statues at their alma mater, San Jose State.

Realistically, I don't think the past three years of athlete activism will add up to an explosive Olympics. But as Smith and Carlos showed, you never know who might shock you. Or how they might do it.

Eleven months from Tokyo, there is nervous anticipation. Some might consider that bad or threatening, but it's nowhere near as worrisome as the issues they're attempting to highlight.

You don't want acts? Do this one damn job: Listen better, care more, and elevate humanity.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2019, with the headline Shock or awe, it's a nervous wait for athlete activism at Tokyo Olympics. Subscribe