By Steve Keating
LIMA (Reuters) – The Pan Am Games medal podium is no place for politics, United States softball gold medallist Monica Abbott said on Sunday after two of her team mates used award ceremonies to stage protests.
Gold medal-winning fencer Race Imboden took a knee during his awards presentation on Friday to protest over social issues at home in the U.S., urging his fellow athletes on Twitter to “please use your platforms for empowerment and change”.
Hammer thrower Gwen Berry did just that on Saturday, raising her fist as the U.S. national anthem played following her gold medal-winning effort.
The protests have split opinions.
Some have pointed to an athlete’s right to free speech while others like Abbott, who has represented the U.S. at two Olympics, say they support that right but just not while representing your country at an international competition.
“One thing that makes the U.S. great is that we have this ability to have freedom in a lot of different things, it is a founding principle in our country — freedom of speech, freedom of religion,” Abbott said during the Games closing news conference on Sunday.
“But as an athlete it is our opportunity to put differences aside whether they’re political, they’re athletic, to whether it is the way we look to put those aside to celebrate something that can bring the world together.
“That is what sport is about. That is what I think the Olympic and Pan American vision is about, bringing people together.”
Such protests are in violation of an agreement athletes sign before competing for the U.S. internationally, leaving both Imboden and Berry facing possible discipline from the United States Olympic Paralympic Committee (USOPC).
“Every athlete competing at the 2019 Pan American Games commits to terms of eligibility, including to refrain from demonstrations that are political in nature,” said USOPC spokesman Mark Jones in a statement on Saturday regarding Imboden’s protest.
“In this case, Race didn’t adhere to the commitment he made to the organising committee and the USOPC. We respect his rights to express his viewpoints, but we are disappointed that he chose not to honour his commitment.
“Our leadership are reviewing what consequences may result.”
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has similar rules regarding protests during the Games, will likely be watching how the USOPC deals with the matter with the Tokyo Olympics now less than a year away.
Athletes taking a knee has become a way of protesting injustice in the United States.
The protest was first started in 2016 by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to draw attention to police shootings of unarmed black men.
Berry’s raised fist recalled memories of what was perhaps the Olympics’ most famous protest when sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their clenched fists into the air during the 200 metres medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico Summer Games.
(Editing by Ken Ferris)