US Olympic chief backs athlete protests


Los Angeles (AFP)

The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee has signalled it will challenge rules banning athletes from protesting at the Olympics after hearing from US athletes last week.

In an open letter to Team USA athletes released late Monday, USOPC chief executive Sarah Hirshland said US officials had until now "failed to listen and tolerated racism and inequality."

The statement follows weeks of protests across the United States against racism and police brutality following the death of unarmed black man George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis on May 25.

The USOPC had faced scrutiny for its sanctions handed out to hammer thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden, who both protested on the podium during last year's Pan-American Games in Lima.

Berry, who raised a clenched fist on the podium, and Imboden, who knelt down, were given a year's probation by the USOPC and warned they could face severe sanctions if they carried out similar protests again.

International Olympic Committee rules bar any "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda" at the Games.

However Hirshland hinted the US would seek to review that policy after setting up an athlete-led group which would "challenge the rules and systems in our own organisation that create barriers to progress, including your right to protest."

The move came after Hirshland held "town hall" meetings with dozens of US athletes last week to hear their views.

Hirshland added that the pain suffered by members of the black community was "unconscionable."

"For decades you have spoken about equality and unity and sacrificed your moment on the podium to call for change," Hirshland wrote.

"And we have failed to listen and tolerated racism and inequality. I am sorry. You deserve better. You matter. Black lives matter.

"It is time to match your remove the barriers, to change the rules, and to empower black voices to be heard."

Berry, who last week had demanded an apology from the USOPC over its handling of her case, described Hirshland's remarks as "encouraging."

"I think it demonstrates that athletes' peaceful protesting is powerful and it can promote change," Berry was quoted as saying by the Washington Post on Tuesday.

"It's a step in the right direction. We need to challenge the rule."

In remarks to USA Today, Berry added she believed athletes should be allowed to protest peacefully at the Olympics.

"For Olympic athletes, we literally only get one chance every four years," Berry said. "So it's important to them. If they want to speak in that moment, they (should) have the right to, because they worked for that."