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Australian survey: younger Olympians more willing to protest

An Australian survey shows a higher proportion of younger Olympians would be prepared to use games venues or medal podiums as a platform for demonstrations.

The International Olympic Committee’s Rule 50.2, which forbids demonstrations or political, religious or racial propaganda in games venues, has come under increasing scrutiny as the global Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum.

The IOC is calling for input from athletes as it reviews the regulations, and has time to implement change if required before the delayed Tokyo Games start next July.

FILE - In this Oct. 16, 1968, file photo, extending gloved hands skyward in racial protest, U.S. athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos stare downward during the playing of the national anthem after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze for the 200 meter run at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City on. Australian silver medalist Peter Norman is at left. (AP PhotoFile)

A survey of 496 past and current Australian athletes released Friday by the Australian Olympic Committee's Athletes' Commission is among the first to be completed.

While it showed that a majority of Australian athletes supported having an avenue for self-expression in some form, 80% believed a protest on the field of play would detract from performance or Games experience of athletes.

But the AOC's Athletes’ Commission chairman Steve Hooker said one of the clear trends was a difference in opinion depending on age, with respondents ranging from those who competed in the 1950s to those aiming for a spot at Tokyo next year.

“Athlete views around freedom of expression have changed over time with contemporary athletes more likely to view the Olympic Games as a platform to express their views," Hooker wrote in a submission to the IOC's Athletes' Commission.

The survey, accounting for about 14% of Australia's living Olympians, showed 19% of respondents believed self-expression was OK at the games in any circumstances, 40% believe self-expression is okay depending on the circumstances — such as news conferences or social media — and 41% thought the games were not a place for athletes to publicly express views at all.

More than 85% of respondents who competed in the '50s replied ‘no' to the question: “Should the Olympics be a stage for athletes to express their views on politics, religion, sexuality, racism, gender and other forms of discrimination or other causes?"

Of those who've competed at the Olympics since 2010, 34% responded yes and 47% were in favor but only under some circumstances. Only 19% believed the games were not a stage for self-expression.

Athletes in some sports have been kneeling on the field before matches in recent months since their leagues resumed following the coronavirus lockdown, adopting the symbolic protest started by former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016.

An Australian athlete had a minor role in the most iconic podium protest in Olympic history. At the 1968 Mexico City Games, U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a gloved fist on the medal podium, which they shared with Australian silver medalist Peter Norman. Norman wore a human rights badge in solidarity with the American runners and stood on the podium with his arms by his side.

More recently, Australian swimmer Mack Horton refused to step onto the podium with Sun Yang at the 2019 world championships after accusing the Chinese gold medalist of going virtually unpunished for alleged doping infractions. Horton got some support from other athletes, but was heavily criticized by others. Sun was later banned for eight years.

“The majority of athletes don’t want to see protests on the field of play or anywhere that would detract from the performance or experience of other athletes," said Hooker, the 2008 Olympic pole vault champion. But, “”athletes are not sure how or when they’re allowed to express themselves off the field of play."

Hooker disagreed with a suggestion during an online news conference Friday that Australian athletes could be viewed as being hypocritical by supporting Horton's stance but then not fully embracing demonstrations.

He said the survey showed 10% of people would protest on the podium under any circumstances, and another 20% would do so under some circumstances.

“What we’re talking about here is people that have strong views," he said. “Mack particularly has strong views, and he expressed those views."

Hooker said his family was close to Norman and he'd always been aware of the Australian sprinter's role in 1968.

“He found himself in a situation and, as a humanitarian, he did what he believed was the right thing to do at that point in time,” Hooker said. “I think we’ve got a number of people on our team that would fall into a similar frame of mind.”

He said the survey reflected that the majority of athletes were passionate about their sport and would go to the Olympics to focus on that.

“That doesn’t mean that other people don’t feel differently," he said. "I wouldn’t say we don’t have compassion for these issues."

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