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Soccer players union promises to defend Olympic protesters

Soccer players who defy Olympic rules by making protest gestures at the 2020 Tokyo Games will be supported by their global union.

Freedom of speech on issues like anti-discrimination and gender equality needs to be protected from “a hypocritical rule,” FIFPro general secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffman said Wednesday at a United Nations labor agency conference.

The International Olympic Committee revived the debate on athlete rights this month by publishing rules on which protests in venues and medal ceremonies can lead to disciplinary action, including being sent home from Tokyo.

Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), delivers a speech during the 135th Session of the IOC on the sideline of the the 3rd Winter Youth Olympic Games Lausanne 2020, at the SwissTech Convention Centre, in Lausanne, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. (Laurent GillieronKeystone via AP)

Taking a knee, hand gestures with political meaning — such as raised fist salutes — and snubbing a fellow medalist on the podium are specific types of demonstrations long prohibited by Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter.

“We feel their freedom of expression overrides any other interest that may be in play here," said Baer-Hoffman, whose union represents 65,000 professional players.

He praised players who have fuelled “these fundamental debates” in soccer by speaking out about racism and equal pay for women.

“They are trailblazers but, on the one hand, they are being welcomed by people to take this forward and make sport appear as a change agent in society,” Baer-Hoffman said. “And, on the other, now we have a hypocritical rule that says if you do it in our venues, we think this is a sanctionable offense.”

“This is absolutely unacceptable,” the union official said on the sidelines of an International Labor Organization conference about athlete working conditions, also attended by Olympic officials.

The IOC says political neutrality is key to keeping the Olympics a place where athletes worldwide can compete together in peace.

Athletes are allowed to express political opinions in Olympic venue interviews and social media accounts.

The Tokyo Games soccer tournaments are a 16-team event for men and 12 for women. They kick off on July 22, two days before the opening ceremony, and end on Aug. 8.

The United States will be the women’s favorite if the team advances from a regional qualifying tournament. The team’s co-captain in qualifying is Megan Rapinoe, who has taken a strong stand speaking out on social issues.

“If the IOC decides to discipline players on this occasion, we will certainly stand by them to defend them,” Baer-Hoffman said.

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