NEW YORK • The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) announced on Thursday that it would no longer punish athletes who participate in peaceful protests, such as kneeling or raising a fist at a medal ceremony, putting itself in direct conflict with the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) longstanding policy.
The announcement was made in conjunction with a recommendation from a council led by US athletes that asked the IOC to change its policy, known as Rule 50, while working on justice causes.
The policy has come under heightened scrutiny as mass protests calling for racial equality, including demonstrations by professional athletes, have spread widely this year in the US and other countries.
"It is critical to state unequivocally that human rights are not political, and peaceful calls for equity and equality must not be confused with divisive demonstrations," Sarah Hirshland, chief executive officer of the USOPC, said in a letter to US Olympic athletes.
Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter prohibits individuals from demonstrating or displaying "political, religious or racial propaganda" around Olympic sites during the Games.
It was invoked, for example, at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico, where US sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith were expelled from the Games for raising their fists on the podium as the Star-Spangled Banner was played.
As recently as October, IOC president Thomas Bach reiterated his position that he did not want the Olympics to become a "marketplace of demonstrations".
For now, the USOPC's change in policy does not mean that US athletes will be free to protest at the Tokyo Olympics next year without the threat of punishment.
In practice, the IOC has historically called on individual organising committees to dole out punishments for violations, although it can bar or expel athletes from the Games or strip them of their medals.
Last year, for instance, the USOPC reprimanded fencer Race Imboden and hammer thrower Gwen Berry, who knelt and raised a fist during their medal ceremonies at the Pan American Games.
Both were given formal warnings and placed on probation for 12 months, but the USOPC has since apologised for those punishments, pledging not to punish athletes for similar acts of peaceful protest.
The IOC is also reviewing the rule - it has organised forums and surveys with Olympians around the world - and some observers feel the announcement will significantly shape that conversation.
Because of its stature, "it does make a difference in terms of what the discourse is going to be at the IOC around this issue," said Han Xiao, chairman of the USOPC's athletes' advisory council.
World Athletics president Sebastian Coe has backed the USOPC's stance, saying: "I support the right of athletes to be a part of the world we live in, and I don't think we can have it both ways.
"As long as they do it respectfully, with due deference that there will be other athletes on that podium with them, I am not going to get sleepless nights on this."
Separately, record 23-time gold medallist Michael Phelps has said that the disruption resulting from Covid-19 means that it is unlikely any swimming world records will fall at next year's Games.
"Honestly, I think that pushing it back by a year throws a bigger loop into it than everybody thinks," the American said.
"The best of the best will fight back and you're going to see some fast swims. But world records? I don't think so. With all these pools being shut down, somebody would have to be damn near perfect for the rest of the preparation to have that chance."