Political expression has been prohibited at the Olympics for decades. Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter states that "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas,” which, according to The Associated Press, includes apparel bearing Black Lives Matter slogans. Athletes will still be allowed to express political viewpoints at various moments during the Olympic games, such as press conferences.
In 1968, two Black athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, were expelled from the Olympic village after they raised gloved fists in a symbolic protest while standing on the podium after taking first and third place during the 200-meter race in Mexico City. A spokesperson for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said at the time that it was a “deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.”
The prohibition of political expression at the Olympics has been controversial subject for decades. In April 2021, the IOC issued a press release about Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter — which states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas” — to inform the Olympic community that they had conducted a survey with Olympic athletes and that rule, with the addition of some clarifying language, would remain in place for the 2020 games (the 2020 games were postponed to July 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
Shortly after this press release was issued, a number of outlets published articles with headlines such as “Olympics ban ‘Black Lives Matter’ apparel” and “‘BLM’ apparel banned at the Tokyo Olympics.” One particularly inaccurate headline claimed that “Japan bans BLM apparel, woke demonstrations at Olympic Games.” (Rule 50 comes from the International Olympic Committee, not Japan, or any other country.)
Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter prohibits all forms of political expression from official Olympic venues (such as during competition, on the podium, or in the Olympic village) which would include, according to the Associated Press, apparel bearing Black Lives Matter slogans. In an article noting that the World Players Association union would provide legal support to any athletes who were found in violation of rule 50, the Associated Press wrote:
Raising a fist or kneeling for a national anthem could lead to punishment from the IOC. The Olympic body’s legal commission should clarify what kind of punishment before this year’s games, which open on July 23.
The IOC also said that slogans such as “Black Lives Matter” will not be allowed on athlete apparel at Olympic venues, though it approved using the words “peace,” “respect,” “solidarity,” “inclusion” and “equality” on T-shirts.
The IOC’s athletes’ commission cited support to uphold Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter from more than two-thirds of about 3,500 replies from consulting athlete groups.
The IOC’s charter does not specifically ban the expression of any specific political ideology or the support of any one particular activist group. Rule 50 is a blanket policy that prohibits all political speech (which would include speech in support of Black Lives Matter) from Olympic venues.
It’s worth noting, though, that the IOC’s guidelines on Rule 50 say that “kneeling” could be considered a form of protest. Kneeling, of course, became associated with the Black Lives Matter movement after a number of American athletes started to kneel during the National Anthem in protest of police violence and racial discrimination circa 2016.
The IOC explained the reason for Rule 50, writing:
The IOC and the IOC Athletes’ Commission are fully supportive of freedom of expression, and this is also a principle included in the Athletes’ Rights and Responsibilities Declaration. At the same time, the IOC wants to respect other athletes on the field of play and athletes celebrating their special moment on the podium.
Rule 50 is in place to keep the field of play, the Olympic Village and the podium neutral and free from any form of political, religious or ethnic demonstrations. We believe the focus at the Olympic Games must remain on athletes’ performances, sport and the international unity and harmony that the Olympic Movement seeks to advance.
When an individual makes their grievances, however legitimate, more important than the feelings of their competitors and the competition itself, the unity and harmony as well as the celebration of sport and human accomplishment are diminished. The aim of Rule 50 is that each and every athlete can enjoy the experience of the Olympic Games without any divisive disruption.
It should be noted that athletes are not prohibited from expressing political views during the entirety of the Olympics. Rule 50 applies to “Olympic venues,” which includes “on the field of play, in the Olympic Village, during Olympic medal ceremonies, and during the Opening, Closing and other official Ceremonies.” Athletes are allowed to express opinions outside of these areas, such as during press conferences or interviews or on social media.