Ever since Peter O’Connor scaled a flagpole in Athens to call out Olympic unfairness the stage was set for winning athletes to make powerful statements. So why outlaw it now?
Some called him the Antelope. Others the King of Spring. But, above all, Peter O’Connor was a revolutionary. These days the exploits of the Irishman have been all but forgotten, yet at the 1906 Olympics in Athens he caused a worldwide stir by staging the first – and quite possibly greatest – podium protest in history.
And what a protest it was. O’Connor was incensed enough when he was told he had to represent Great Britain despite being selected by the Gaelic Athletic Association to compete for Ireland. But matters got even worse when the long jump world record holder then finished second to the American Myer Prinstein after the sole judge – who happened to be the manager of the US team – awarded two foul jumps against him.
O’Connor initially wanted to thump the judge. Instead he did something far more radical. First he shimmied up a 20ft high flagpole in the stadium (it probably helped that he was a former gymnast). There he hoisted a large green flag bearing a golden harp and the words “Erin Go Bragh” – Ireland for ever – while his colleague Con Leahy fended off Greek police.
It’s some image, isn’t it? But what happened next (at the 10th anniversary Games, since delisted from full status) is also worth noting. While Olympic officials were displeased with O’Connor’s act of political dissent, they did not expel him and, as Jules Boykoff notes in his excellent book Power Games, two days later he went on to win gold in the hop, step, and jump – where he repeated his flag-waving protest from the ground.
Nowadays the International Olympic Committee takes a rather dimmer view. Last week it published guidelines specifying which types of athlete protests will not be allowed at the 2020 Tokyo Games. Strangely they appear more repressive than in 1906.
Hand gestures with political meaning are out. So is taking a knee. And athletes who defy these rules on the podium, in the Olympic village, at the opening and closing ceremonies or on the field of play can be sanctioned by the IOC, their sport and their national federation.
Athletes can still express political opinions in official media settings or on social media accounts but the IOC stresses that under article 50: “It is a fundamental principle that sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference.”
Naturally this is la-la land stuff. Of course sport and politics are intertwined. The Olympics, after all, is partly a giant willy-waving contest between nations. It also seems impossibly wishful thinking to try to silence the political whims and wishes of athletes on the biggest stage in sport.
Then there is the IOC’s staggering hypocrisy. It is less than two years since the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, where it was impossible to escape the symbolism of North and South Korea fielding a united team. The IOC president, Thomas Bach, reminded us this was “one further step showing how sport can once more make a contribution to peace on the Korean Peninsula and the world”.
I hope Bach is proved right but surely he sees the parallels between his wish for a better global future and those of, say, a black American athlete taking a knee to urge for equal rights back home.
Remember, too, how the IOC lapped up promises from Beijing’s bid team that hosting the 2008 Olympics could make the country more liberal. Liu Jingmin, then deputy mayor of Beijing, said at the time: “By applying for the Olympics, we want to promote not just the city’s development, but the development of society, including democracy and human rights.” According to the IOC member Dick Pound, that proved “an all-but-irresistible prospect”. Alas, Liu’s words were not matched by reality.
What compounds the IOC’s hypocrisy is that at the excellent Olympic museum in Lausanne there are tributes to the moment when Tommie Smith raised a fist in protest at the 1968 Games in Mexico. The headline beneath a photograph of Smith says: “When the podium becomes a stage”. Only not, apparently, for much longer.
Megan Rapinoe wrote on Instagram: ‘So much being done about the protests. So little being done about what we are protesting about. We will not be silenced.’
So what is going on? Almost certainly the IOC’s stance comes from not wanting to risk the huge sums of money from sponsors and TV companies. However, it risks being on the wrong side of history if it dares stop someone protesting against racism or homophobia on the podium.
Indeed, the women’s footballer of the year, Megan Rapinoe, has already indicated she will not be stopped from speaking out, after posting on Instagram that athletes would “not be silenced” in Tokyo. “So much being done about the protests,” she added. “So little being done about what we are protesting about.” Her comments were accompanied by a graphic showing fists raised through the interlocking rings – under the crossed out words “kneeling, hand gestures, signs”.
Many years after his protest O’Connor reminisced fondly about what it had achieved. “When I climbed a pole about 20 feet in height and remained aloft for some time, waving my large flag – it caused a great sensation,” he said. “It received wide publicity in the world’s press and turned the spotlight very much on the Irish political situation at a period when very few dared to raise a protest against the British domination of our country.”
Food for thought, perhaps. Especially for anyone who finds themselves on the podium in Tokyo.