Olympics' organisers could regret banning 'taking the knee'

24 April 2021

4:30 PM

24 April 2021

4:30 PM

Knee-taking and fist-raising protests have been banned at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, with the International Olympic Committee warning athletes who flout the rules that they will be punished. The IOC clearly hopes this will mean the delayed and accursed Olympics – already set to be loaded with a slew of joy-killing Covid restrictions – can take place without the additional burden of political controversy. That’s the theory, but could it all backfire?

At first glance it looks as if the IOC has been clever. Rather than issue a top-down declaration, they canvassed 3,500 athletes asking whether the current Rule 50, which bars all political demonstrations on the podium (not specifically the knee or the fist), should be retained. Two thirds responded that it should, allowing the IOC to shift responsibility on to the athletes.

The news has been met with a certain bewilderment in Japan. BLM never really took off here and the whole racial justice movement thing has been lost in translation somewhat. At the height of the demonstrations in London and elsewhere over the summer, I recall seeing a lone protester sitting at the Shibuya scramble square with a cardboard sign, looking thoroughly miserable. He was being ignored by everyone.

Larger protests, mainly organised by foreign residents, did take place later. But it would be more accurate to call them gatherings, or even just outings, so placid and unobtrusive were they. One of my students told me he went along to get out of a class he didn’t like, and had no idea what he was protesting about.

‘Do you think there were others like you?’

‘Oh, yeah, most people there were like that.’

As for knee-taking, no Japanese players have taken it up in the J-League, and there was no popular clamour for it. Japanese sportsmen and women generally refrain from any involvement in politics or protests of any kind.

If I were seeking to portray myself as an exceptionally cultivated Orientalist, I would attribute this to Japan’s Confucian philosophy, where everyone has his or her place in a socially harmonious world. Thus, for example, footballers are footballers. They kick a ball around a park; they do not take part in political activism.

The only obvious exception to this is tennis ace Naomi Osaka, who was raised in the USA from the age of three. She took up the cause of George Floyd – and turned off a sizeable chunk of her Japanese fan base as a result. It wasn’t the cause so much that offended, as the fact there was a cause at all. ‘Stick to tennis’ was the clear message.

Added to this is the fact the BLM movement’s narrative is very hard to relate to everyday life here. Even in Tokyo it is rare to see a black person (only two per cent of the population is non-Japanese), and violent altercations with the police are almost unheard of. Drugs are not a part of ordinary people’s lives. The events in Minneapolis played out like a scene from a fictional drama set in a dystopian fantasy world.

The Olympics will bring the issues of that world to Tokyo, though, if only for a few weeks, and not everyone is convinced the IOC’s preemptive strike is the best way of dealing with them. There is a worry that the Barbara Streisand effect will kick in – by banning something you draw attention to it. Already, the German Athlete’s Association has protested, claiming the ban is an infringement on free speech. And the US has confirmed they will not sanction any of their athletes who do protest, which could almost be seen as a tacit endorsement.

The IOC have not revealed what punishment they might mete out for those determined to seize their moment to make their point, only saying it will be ‘proportionate’. But it is unlikely to involve the removal of medals or a ban. And such numbers of Japanese as will be allowed into the stadia are not going to make things difficult by voicing disapproval; again, that’s not really a thing here: stony silence is about as ugly as a Japanese crowd gets. And even if athletes do behave on the podium, there’s nothing to stop them protesting in press conferences or elsewhere.

Given their position of weakness, the organisers will be praying the whole issue just dies away in the next few months and political gesturing goes out of fashion. But that seems like very wishful thinking. Derek Chauvin will be allowed to appeal his conviction for the murder of George Floyd in around eight weeks’ time. The story is likely to remain remain front and centre for some time to come.

And there is always the chance of another incident that keeps the temperature in the race debate red hot, and acts of protest a feature of public life.

Meanwhile Tokyo goes into its third State of Emergency this weekend amid rising coronavirus case numbers. It is being seen as a desperate move to save the games. Many are wondering if it might be better just to let it go.

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