World Athletics president Sebastian Coe backs athletes’ right to protest despite threat of Olympic ban

Exclusive: Lord Coe says athletes should be allowed to make their point peacefully but IOC rules ban any form of protest at Tokyo 2020, including taking a knee

Lawrence Ostlere
Wednesday 10 June 2020 18:05 BST
Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise a fist at the 1968 Olympics
Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise a fist at the 1968 Olympics

Sebastian Coe, the president of World Athletics, believes athletes should not be banned for protesting at major events like the Olympic Games, despite current IOC rules which outlaw all forms of protest.

Athletes across the world of professional sport have joined the Black Lives Matter movement in protesting against the death of George Floyd and wider racial injustice. However, on Wednesday the International Olympic Committee (IOC) confirmed to the Daily Telegraph that its guidelines on protesting are still in place.

Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter states “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” The rules, which were clarified in January, ban any form of protest at Tokyo 2020 including taking a knee, raising a fist or refusing to follow protocol at medal ceremonies.

Some sporting governing bodies including Fifa have called for a common-sense approach to athlete protest at a time of heightened emotion and momentum in tackling institutionalised racism. And although athletics is the Olympics’ blue-riband sport, the stance of its governing body also appears to be at odds with the IOC’s zero-tolerance approach.

Asked whether athletes should be allowed to protest peacefully at events like the Tokyo Olympics next year, Coe told The Independent: “I am reluctant to discourage athletes from expressing their views and I sense that the current generation is more willing to speak out than some previous generations were.

“There is nothing in World Athletics’ Integrity Cody of Conduct to prevent athletes from protesting as long as it is done in a respectful manner, considers other athletes, and does not damage our sport.”

In showing its support for the Black Lives Matter movement this week, World Athletics used an image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in their famous black power pose at the 1968 Games in Mexico, an incident which saw them ostracised from the sport.

Coe also tweeted his support for the movement, writing: “Our athletes and the athletics’ family have been rocked by this so I am going to call the sport together. We must find our collective voice and practical actions #BlackLivesMatter.”

World Athletics rules make no direct reference to protest. They call on athletes to “conduct themselves in a professional and courteous manner and in particular to refrain from using language or conduct that is obscene, offensive or of an insulting nature towards another person; not to unlawfully discriminate on the basis of race, sex, ethnic origin, colour, culture, religion, political opinion, marital status, sexual orientation or other differences and in particular to encourage and actively support equality of gender in Athletics”.

Anti-racism movements are expected to be discussed at an IOC executive board meeting on Wednesday.

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