US athletes take principled stands with podium protests
The life of an Olympic athlete is one of endless sacrifice.
For hammer thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden, their principles won’t be among them.
Berry and Imboden are almost sure to be disciplined for their protests on the medals stand at the Pan American Games. Berry raised her fist during the Star-Spangled Banner after winning gold Saturday, one day after Imboden took a knee during the men’s team foil medals ceremony.
“Somebody has to talk about the things that are too uncomfortable to talk about. Somebody has to stand for all of the injustices that are going on in America and a president who’s making it worse,” Berry told USA TODAY Sports on Saturday night.
“It’s too important to not say something,” Berry added. “Something has to be said. If nothing is said, nothing will be done, and nothing will be fixed, and nothing will be changed.”
The demonstrations were not done lightly. Athletes sign standard agreements not to “make remarks or release propaganda of political, religious or racial nature, or any other kind” during the Games, and U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee spokesman Mark Jones said the organization was “reviewing what consequences may result.”
Given that the Tokyo Olympics are less than a year away, who knows how far those consequences might reach.
Also, athletes who have criticized President Donald Trump have felt the wrath of his sycophant followers, while those who have engaged in peaceful protest, that most fundamental of American rights, have found themselves ostracized or blackballed.
But this country, already badly wounded by partisan divide and hate mongering, seems to have reached a tipping point in the past week. Are we going to continue to bury our heads along with our dead from yet another mass shooting? Are we going to allow President Donald Trump to put our fellow citizens in further danger with his racism and bigotry? Are we going to let Trump and all those who bleat about loving America dismantle our rules of law and democratic traditions?
Of course it is easier to sit in silence and either let others speak out or hope that the madness will eventually pass. We no longer have that luxury, though, and Imboden and Berry recognize there will come a time when we are held to account for the ugliness in this country, and they want no doubts about where they stood.
“We must call for change,” Imboden wrote. “This week I am honored to represent Team USA at the Pan Am Games, taking home Gold and Bronze. My pride however has been cut short by the multiple shortcomings of the country I hold so dear to my heart. Racism, Gun Control, mistreatment of immigrants and a president who spreads hate are at the top of a long list.
“I chose to sacrifice my moment today at the top of the podium to call attention to issues that I believe need to be addressed,” Imboden continued. “I encourage others to please use your platforms for empowerment and change.”
There will be those who criticize Berry and Imboden for “not sticking to sports.” Others will voice righteous indignation at their “disrespect” for the flag and the anthem. There will even be some who will suggest that if they are so disappointed by their country, they should leave it.
But they will miss the point — same as all those who have attacked Colin Kaepernick, Megan Rapinoe and the other athletes who have protested and spoken out.
Our symbols are meaningless when we forget what they represent. We pay lip service to patriotism when we don’t defend our bedrock ideals of equality and opportunity, along with the longstanding recognition that our differences — race, gender, religion, where our ancestors came from, who we love — are the source of our strength rather than a sign of our weakness.
We are not a perfect nation and never have been. But what sets America apart is the participatory nature of our democracy.
Most times, that doesn’t require much more than voting or being involved in our communities. When it becomes apparent that we have strayed too far from our ideals, however, we have a duty to call out those failings and challenge our leaders and fellow Americans to do better.
“I love representing my country. America is a great country. It’s the best country in the world,” Berry said. “However, what we are standing for right now, it is complete and utter — it’s extreme injustice.”
The USOPC will argue that Berry and Imboden picked the wrong venue for their protests. That, though, is exactly the point. Protests are not meant to be convenient or polite. They are intended to provoke, to grab your attention and make you think and, hopefully, act.
We praise athletes from foreign countries for their courage when they protest against their broken and corrupt governments. Is the America of 2019 so much different?
After the United States showed its worst self this week, Gwen Berry and Race Imboden reminded us of what the country looks like at its best.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.