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All Eyes Are On USA Olympian Gwen Berry Who Calls For An End To Ban On Podium Protest

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Tokyo, Olympic organizers are under increasing pressure to do away with a rule that bans protests on the podium. Already, one U.S. athlete defied Rule 50 on Sunday with a brief gesture on her silver medal podium. NPR's Leila Fadel reports, now all eyes are on U.S. hammer thrower and activist Gwen Berry.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Tomorrow, Gwen Berry will compete in the finals. Her goal is to medal. But she's also an activist who has been consistent in using her platform to protest racial injustice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GWEN BERRY: Dear Olympians...

FADEL: In a video posted before she began her competition, Berry had a message to her fellow athletes - unite to change the ban on protesting.

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BERRY: Despite the fact that our job is to focus on competition, we must remember the biggest challenges we face are outside of our sports and inside of our communities.

FADEL: After global demonstrations sparked by the murder of George Floyd, the killing of Breonna Taylor and other Black people, the world woke up to the continued police brutality and racial injustices that persist today in the United States, as they did 50 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERRY: ...When my brothers Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested at the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games.

FADEL: The two Olympians make a cameo. You'll remember them from that iconic image. They were barefoot to represent Black poverty, their fists in the air in protest of the treatment of Black people. For that, they were expelled from the Games.

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BERRY: The IOC has doubled down on their reinforcement of Rule 50, banning our human right to peacefully protest on the podium.

FADEL: It has to go, she says. The IOC is on the wrong side of history. Now, organizers have actually relaxed the rule in Tokyo with new guidelines that say where and how athletes can express their views as long as it's, quote, "consistent with principles of Olympicism and isn't disruptive" - vague, but we've seen athletes test the new rules. Soccer players, including the U.S. team, have knelt on the field before their matches. On the podium, though, gestures like that are still banned. This week, IOC spokesman Mark Adams said this about Berry's assertion that the organizers are doubling down.

MARK ADAMS: There was a survey, big survey globally which showed that the very large majority - 70%, I think, on average - were in favor of restricting demonstrations on the podium and the field of play.

FADEL: Still, Adams says they relaxed the rules, although critics ask how many of those athletes surveyed were Black or from other oppressed communities. The week of the opening ceremony, Berry, Smith and Carlos were among 150 signatories on an open letter demanding change to Rule 50, so was Global Athlete, an athlete-led advocacy group headed by Rob Koehler. He says it's hypocritical of Olympic organizers to preach a message of using sport to better communities then ban protesting.

ROB KOEHLER: If you have issues in countries where there's major social and racial justice issues and you're not allowing athletes to use the platform to bring that to the forefront, when they have that podium to show the world that things aren't OK and you can be a part of the discussion and part of the change, it makes no sense.

FADEL: Koehler says the majority of competitors at the Games can barely pay their rent. They get little financial gain, if any, for participating. What these competitors do get is a moment of the world's attention if they medal.

KOEHLER: Freedom of speech is a basic human right, and the IOC sport rules should not be able to dictate when and where someone can speak. That's a breach of the U.N. Charter.

FADEL: Tomorrow, Berry wants that medal she's worked for in the hammer throw. And she's sacrificed before to protest racial injustice, losing sponsors, getting in trouble with Olympic officials. So if she gets to the podium, she hasn't really thought about what she might do. But she knows she'll represent.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.