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U.S. says it won't punish athletes for peacefully protesting at Olympic Games

The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) announced Thursday that it will not discipline athletes for protesting peacefully at the Olympics and Pan American Games. The decision is a significant policy change for the committee, which has previously punished athletes for protesting at the games. 

Fencer Race Imboden, who was given a 12-month probation last year for taking a knee during the Pan American Games medal ceremony, told CBS News in an interview on Friday that the decision was a "shifting of the moral compass." 

"It's because of the athletes, it's because people care and want to speak up and want to make a difference," he said. 

The USOPC later apologized and overturned the suspension of Imboden and Gwen Berry, who also demonstrated during the games. Berry, who is Black, commended the Thursday decision. 

"Black athletes have been suppressed and living in fear since Tommie and John's protest.. no different to the last 400 years. The chains and the whip have just been taken away .. #NOMORE Don't be surprised at the reaction you'll get in Tokyo," she tweeted. 

In the announcement Thursday, USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland said the organization "values the voices of Team USA athletes and believes that their right to advocate for racial and social justice, and be a positive force for change, absolutely aligns with the fundamental values of equality that define Team USA and the Olympic and Paralympic movements."

Lima 2019 Pan Am Games - Day 14
Gold medalist Race Imboden of United States takes a knee during the national anthem ceremony at Lima 2019 Pan American Games. / Getty Images

Under the International Olympic Committee's Rule 50, participating team members and athletes are not allowed to partake in any demonstration during the Olympic and Paralympic Games. But each country's governing athletic organizations, such as the USOPC, are tasked with punishing the athletes for the violation. The USOPC also announced Thursday that it supports a recommendation from the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice that the International Olympic Committee stop prohibiting peaceful protest by athletes. 

Fifty-two years ago, the USOPC famously suspended track stars and medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos and sent them home after they raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. 

At the Mexico City Summer Olympics in 1968, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos (who won the gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200 meters) wore beads in honor of lynching victims, and as the national anthem played, hung their heads and raised their fists in a salute Carlos says was not anti-American, but pro-black. AP

In year where many American athletes have felt emboldened to speak out against racial injustice, Imboden is no stranger to the cause. The Olympic medalist is part of the Protests and Demonstrations committee within the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice, an athlete-led coalition formed to address rules and systems in the USOPC that create barriers to progress. His main goal is to affect Rule 50, which he believes "silences" athletes. 

The council — with the USOPC's support — sent a letter with its recommendations to the International Olympic Committee to end the prohibition of peaceful demonstrations by team members at the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The letter asks the committee to make changes including removing coded language targeting the rights of specific social groups, and clearly distinguishing between human rights and social justice protests and instances of hate speech, which the group says should be considered "divisive disruptions." 

"The Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice provided its recommendation to the USOPC, NGBs, IOC and IPC in an effort to show the power and duty athletes have to build a more inclusive world through sport," Moushaumi Robinson, 2004 Olympic gold medalist in track and field and chair of the council said in a statement. "The Council believes the diversity of Team USA athletes is our strength, and that this recommendation can be a catalyst for change."

According to Imboden, the recommendations are a result of the activism from athletes and those who want to change the rule.

"What we want to see, and what we're seeing is that the [USOPC] realizes, as many organizations in the U.S. are right now, that they have to stand with the people because the people have the power," he said. 

The International Olympic Committee's athlete commission is actively soliciting feedback on the topic of demonstration at the Olympic Games. Whether the American federation's recommendations could impact the committee remains to be seen. Last October, committee president Thomas Bach wrote in The Guardian that the Games are "not about politics" and it cannot "become a marketplace of demonstrations of all kinds." 

IOC President Thomas Bach Visits Tokyo Olympic Sites
Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), speaks to reporters during a visit to the New National Stadium, the main venue for the now-postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Bloomberg

The rescheduled Olympics in Tokyo are less than eight months away. Imboden, who has been training for the games, said he hopes to see change in the committee's position in the near future. 

"Maybe it will happen now, maybe it will happen the next Games, but this will be something that's now gonna be an issue for a long time to come," he said. "So, there's no way that this is not the most political Games in history at this point. It's going to be one. But these demonstrations are about the athletes and their feelings towards the places that they're from and the sports they play." 

"That's not going to be controlled by someone in an office saying, 'Don't do it,'" he added. 

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