• Sanctions for raising fists or taking a knee at 2020 Games
  • Previous protests ‘had no effect whatsoever’, says IOC

Politicians and athletes should keep politics out of this year’s Tokyo Olympic Games to protect the event’s neutrality and its status as a peaceful meeting place, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach has said.

The Games have seen both political protests by athletes in the past as well as boycotts of nations and Bach said any infusion of politics into the Games in Tokyo starting on 24 July would not be welcome.

The IOC’s guidelines specify which types of athlete protests will not be allowed. Athletes are prohibited by the Olympic Charter’s Rule 50 from taking a political stand in the field of play – like the raised fists by American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Games.

Today’s Olympians now know more about which acts of “divisive disruption” will lead to disciplinary action in Tokyo. They can still express political opinions in official media settings or on social media accounts.

“The mission of the Olympics is to unite and not to divide. We are the only event in the world that gets the entire world together in a peaceful competition,” Bach told reporters after a meeting with the IOC athletes’ commission chief Kirsty Coventry.

“I ask them [politicians and athletes] to respect this mission of the Olympic Games and in order to accomplish this mission we must be politically neutral. Otherwise we would end up in this divisive and boycott situation. I ask them to respect this political neutrality by not using them [the Olympics] as a stage for their political purposes.”

The Games of 1980 and 1984 were hit by boycotts that did not have any results, Bach said. “The boycotts we had particularly in the 1980s with Moscow and the counter-boycott in Los Angeles which brought the Games to the brink of demise... had no effect whatsoever.

“Sport was a kind of a scapegoat because all the other political divisions were not affected. The Moscow boycott did not change anything in Afghanistan at the time and the counter-boycott in 1984 did nothing to change politically the United States or the foreign policy in the US.”

Athletes who break protest rules in Tokyo face three rounds of disciplinary action – by the IOC, a sport’s governing body and a national Olympic body.

The new guidelines come after two American athletes were reprimanded by the US Olympic Committee for medal podium protests at the Pan-American Games in August in Lima, Peru. Fencer Race Imboden kneeled and hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised a fist in protest. Both were put on probation for 12 months, a period that covers the Tokyo Olympics.

Other protests in 2019 included swimmers from Australia and Britain refusing to join world championship gold medallist Sun Yang on the podium because the Chinese star has been implicated in doping violations.

At the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics, Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby was sent home after refusing to shake the hand of Israeli Or Sasson after their bout. In October 2019 Iran’s judokas were banned indefinitely from international competitions until it could provide strong guarantees that its athletes would be allowed to face Israelis.

The ban followed a protective suspension imposed on the Iran Judo Federation in September 2019 for putting pressure on one of its fighters to withdraw from the world judo championships to avoid having to face an Israeli opponent.

“It is a fundamental principle that sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference,” the IOC document states, urging “the focus for the field of play and related ceremonies must be on celebrating athletes’ performance”.

A meeting Thursday between the IOC executive board and athletes’ panel also discussed the charter’s Rule 40, which strictly limits an athletes ability to promote their sponsors during official Olympic Games periods.