When crossed arms cross lines: Will the Olympic Lords of the Rings come after Raven Saunders’ silver?

TOKYO—A twerk, arms crossed in a defiant “X,” and a tweet warning that, if authorities tried to repossess her silver medal for breaking rules about athlete protests, they’d have to wrest it from her cold unrelinquishing hands.

“Let them try and take this medal,” wrote Raven Saunders — Black, lesbian, South Carolinian — after expressing herself on the podium as Olympic champion shot putter with something to say. “I’m running across the border even though I can’t swim.”

Or — should it come to that — Saunders can dig in her heels, maybe seek refuge from the U.S. embassy, and refuse to get on a plane. As has Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who sought help from Japanese police at Haneda airport on Sunday after her delegation tried to bundle her onto a flight and out of the country for the alleged crime of complaining about her coach. Hell no, she wouldn’t go.

Now that’s a protest of a different hue.

Saunders was merely trying to exercise her free speech rights. Rights that are in conflict with International Olympic Committee protocols about where and how athletes can politically attest at these Games — protocols that have been updated three times over the last year and a half. Because even the staunchly conservative IOC doesn’t want to be seen as un-woke in a rapidly shifting world.

During the photo op at her medals ceremony, Saunders stepped off the podium — so, maybe technically within the rules — and gestured that “X” with her crossed wrists. Asked in the mixed zone what she meant, the 25-year-old explained: “It’s the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.”

She is among the relatively few athletes in Tokyo who’s lifted her voice. Saunders, who’s struggled with depression and admits to having had suicidal thoughts before finding safe ground, said: “For me, just being who I always aspired to be, to be able to be me and not apologize for it (and) show the younger generation that no matter what they tell you, no matter how many boxes they try to fit you in, you can be you.

“People tell me not to do tattoos and piercings, but now look at me, I’m popping.”

Earlier, on the field, she’d twerked and danced for TV cameras, unleashing her inner “Hulk,” the Marvel comics superhero she’s channelled since teenage days, also emblazoned on her face mask. “I know there are so many people that have been looking up to me, so many people that have messaged me, so many people that have been praying for me.”

She’s also worn a grinning Joker mask.

Saunders did wait until the flag of Chinese gold medallist Gong Lijiao was raised and her anthem played. She did not interfere with or distract from that occasion.

Her hope is to “inspire” and motivate the LGBTQ community, African Americans, Black people and those who’ve experience mental health problems.

In that sense Saunders has carved a deeper path within a social movement among athletes who’ve taken up the cause of social justice. She’s kept the faith, which is more than can be said of many others now that the novelty and celebrity has worn off.

The awakening of sports to social justice and historical reckoning has mostly fizzled or faded.

Blame the coronavirus. As in so many areas of existence as we knew it, a plague has for the last 18 months dominated discussion, consumed political debate and commandeered media coverage. The entire planet seemed precariously balanced on the micro-prick of a pathogen.

For a long time, sports all but vanished as leagues shut down, fields of play were evacuated, arenas silenced. When the games lurched back to life — tentatively, nervously, trussed and tangled in health protocols — suddenly triggered activism was obscured by the larger impetus for survival in an unrecognizable new normal.

Who really cared about who was taking a knee — however noble the sentiment — when more than four million had died and nearly 200 million had been sickened? It was primarily a First World privileged protest, gilded in the celebrity of zillionaire professional athletes — though it began humbly, with Colin Kaepernick silently, respectfully, kneeling during the American anthem, calling attention (at first barely registering) to racial inequality and police brutality.

In one whirlwind year — and one agonizing death of a Black man at the suffocating knee of a white cop, a phone-recorded episode that triggered an explosion of public rage — the world tipped on its ethical axis. But spillover into The Greatest Show on Earth has been superficial, reinforcing the IOC’s argument that most athletes don’t want this environment consumed by political grandstanding.

An IOC poll found stark divisions. While 40 per cent of athletes surveyed said it was appropriate to demonstrate individual political views in the media or at press conferences, a whopping two-thirds were against taking those views demonstrably to the podium. The IOC compromise was a loosening of restrictions while keeping the podium pristine.

Of course the Olympics have always been inherently political, for all the blather about the purity of sports and camaraderie of athletic spirit. Certainly the IOC didn’t object to German athletes delivering the Nazi salute at the 1936 Games in Berlin. The 80s saw tit-for-tat political boycotts of L.A. and Moscow.

On the day of the opening ceremonies, more than 140 athletes, academics and social justice advocates — a tiny fraction, considering upwards of 11,000 athletes are competing in Tokyo — released an open letter demanding a more meaningful change to Rule 50 of the IOC charter, which lays out the guidelines, specifically prohibiting “political, religious or racial propaganda.” Athletes, under the massaged directives, may wear apparel at Olympic venues with words such as peace, respect, solidarity, inclusion and equality — but not, say, “Black Lives Matter.”

Some have swum against the restrictive current. The Australian women’s soccer team unfurled an Indigenous flag prior to their opening match and several players took a knee against racial inequality. Some did the same, to protest against racial discrimination hurled at Black players after England lost their final UEFA match. Japan’s soccer women also made a protest gesture, which is highly unusual in this country. Canada’s women’s rugby 7s squad, at their pre-competition virtual press conference, all wore matching black T-shirts inscribed with “BIPOC Lives Matter” and issued statements on racial equality, the discovery of remains of Indigenous children in unmarked graves at or near residential schools, and introduced themselves by their pronouns.

Minutes after Saunders made her feelings clear — or not so clear because her explanation was all over the map — U.S. fencer Race Imboden took his bronze medal in foil with a circled “X” written on his hand, which hadn’t been there during the competition. Its significance was unclear but in 2019 Imboden knelt during the playing of the national anthem at the Pan American Games, and was put on probation by the United States Olympic Committee. At the time, Imboden said: “I knelt because America doesn’t reflect me anymore.”

The USOC, ahead of the Olympic trials, said it would not punish athletes for protesting — taking a knee or raising a clenched fist, even on the podium — but drew the line at wearing a mask or any other article of clothing with a hate symbol or hate speech on it. That policy, permitting advocacy for racial and social justice — applied only for the trials and not the Tokyo Olympics, which fall under IOC purview.

But the first undisputed protester showing her colours on the actual field of play was 18-year-old Costa Rican gymnast Luciana Alvarado, who raised a fist at the conclusion of her floor routine. Alvarado told the Associated Press afterwards that her whole routine was choreographed to honour the Black Lives Matter movement and to highlight the importance of achieving equality for everyone.

“Because we’re all the same. We’re all beautiful and amazing.”

Under the IOC protocols, Alvarado appears to have coloured within the lines. Raven Saunders bled out over the page.

Will the Lords of the Rings come after Saunders’ silver? They seem to be in consternation and conundrum about taking punitive action. It would be a very bad look.

I suspect they’ll do nothing.