Is Olympian Gwen Berry's Disgraceful 'Athlete Activism' Productive?

Is Olympian Gwen Berry's Disgraceful 'Athlete Activism' Productive?
AP Photo/David J. Phillip

On Saturday, Olympic hammer thrower Gwen Berry turned her back on the American flag as the U.S. National Anthem played. Her disgraceful act of so-called activism took place as she stood atop the podium to receive her third-place bronze medal at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Oregon.

When asked if President Biden supports Berry’s behavior during the National Anthem, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said:

Several conservative pundits called out Berry’s disrespectful behavior and some called for her removal from Team USA altogether:

While most Americans recognize Berry’s right as an American citizen to protest, in today’s socio-political climate there are certainly more effective ways to go about gaining the respect and, ultimately, the change she seeks.

This isn’t hard. Good sportsmanship costs nothing. Don’t want to cover your heart during the National Anthem? Fine, stand silently while it plays. But deliberately showing disrespect by turning your back, covering your head with an activist t-shirt, and diminishing the experience of your fellow teammates (who both happened to have earned a higher medal than you) is not only unacceptable to most Americans, it also goes against the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) own Rule 50.

Rule 50 states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

Rule 50 is in place to keep the field of play, the Olympic Village and the podium neutral and free from any form of political, religious or ethnic demonstrations.

We believe the focus at the Olympic Games must remain on athletes’ performances, sport and the international unity and harmony that the Olympic Movement seeks to advance.

When an individual makes their grievances, however legitimate, more important than the feelings of their competitors and the competition itself, the unity and harmony as well as the celebration of sport and human accomplishment are diminished.

The aim of Rule 50 is that each and every athlete can enjoy the experience of the Olympic Games without any divisive disruption.

Good sportsmanship and pride in the sport–if not the country you represent–should come before any so-called activism.

Berry needs to remember that as an Olympic athlete she represents all Americans of all races and persuasions. She doesn’t simply represent herself and the black community. Yes, athletes have a right to protest the social justice du jour. However, the American people also have a right to be represented by Team USA with dignity and respect on the world stage.

According to the IOC, the three values it promotes through its Olympic athletes are excellence, friendship, and respect:

The original values of Olympism as expressed in the Olympic Charter were to “encourage effort”, “preserve human dignity” and “develop harmony”.

Over time, they have evolved and are now expressed in more contemporary terms as:

Striving for excellence and encouraging people to be the best they can be.

Celebrating friendship, which is quite unique to the Olympic Games – an event that brings people together every few years.

Demonstrating respect in many different manners: respect towards yourself, the rules, your opponents, the environment, the public, etc.

Respect. Not only is respect valued by the IOC, it is expected of its athletes.

Good sportsmanship would definitely be more productive as a way to garner everyday Americans’ admiration and respect. Berry could leverage that after her Olympic career to use in true social activism for real change. Her symbolic angry and disrespectful activism won’t result in the outcome she’s looking for: real substantial societal change.

Is America always positive and perfect? No, but being disrespectful and divisive while on an Olympic podium for all the world to see is absolutely not a productive way to create positive change.

America–as imperfect as it is–has provided athletes like Berry with many opportunities. And as it says in the IOC guidelines, “there is more that unites us than divides us.”

Related: Rep. Crenshaw: Gwen Berry Should Be Booted From U.S. Olympic Team. Berry Responds.

Gwen Berry would do well to remember that.