AMERICAN hammer thrower Gwen Berry turned away from the national flag and raised a t-shirt over her head as the national anthem played.

Berry, 31, had just qualified for the Olympic team by finishing third in the event at the U.S track and field trials in Oregon.

The impromptu protest has once again polarised athletes and fans alike.

Including politicians on both sides of the divide. “We don’t need any more activist athletes,” Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) said during an appearance on Fox News’ “Fox and Friends”. “She should be removed from the team. The entire point of the Olympic team is to represent the United States of America. It’s the entire point.”

“It’s one thing when the NBA does it. OK, we’ll just stop watching,” Crenshaw added. “But now the Olympic team? And it’s multiple cases of this. They should be removed. That should be the bare minimum requirement, is that you believe in the country you’re representing.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about Berry’s demonstration and said President Joe Biden respects the Olympian’s right to peacefully protest.

“Part of that pride in our country means recognizing there are moments where we, as a country, haven’t lived up to our highest ideals,” Psaki said. “And it means respecting the right of people granted to them in the Constitution.” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) called for Berry to be ejected off the squad after she turned her back on the American flag while the national anthem was played over the weekend at the Olympic trials in Oregon.

“I don’t think it’s too much, when athletes are competing to wear the Stars and Stripes — to compete under the Stars and Stripes in the Olympics — for them to simply honor that flag and our anthem on the medal stand,” Cotton, a former Army infantry officer, told “Fox News Primetime”. “If Ms. Berry is so embarrassed by America, then there’s no reason she needs to compete for our country. She should be removed from the Olympic team.”

In her defense, Berry did not think the national anthem would be played. The song is

played only once a night at the trials, not during every medal ceremony as at the Olympics.

Afterward, she said an official told her the anthem would be played before she took the podium and posed for pictures.

“I feel like it was setup,” Berry said indignantly.

“I feel like they did that on purpose, and I was pissed, to be honest. I was thinking about what should I do. Eventually, I just stayed there and just swayed. I put my shirt over my head. It was real disrespectful. I know they did that on purpose, but it’ll be all right. I see what’s up.”

Berry has a history of protests.

At the 2019 Pan-American Games in Peru, Berry raised her fist while standing atop the podium. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee placed her on probation for one year for violating Rule 50, the International Olympic Committee regulation that prohibits political protest. Last summer, the USOPC publicly and privately apologized to Berry. This year, it changed its rules to allow protest at domestic events.

When the anthem played, Berry swayed next to the podium, a bronze medal around her neck and a bouquet of flowers in her hands. Fellow Olympic qualifiers DeAnna Price and Brooke Andersen stood on the top two steps.

Berry held up a black T-shirt that read “Activist Athlete.”

“It was funny because they said they were going to play it before we walked out,” Berry said.

“It just happened they played it when we were out there. So, you know, it’s okay. I really don’t want to talk about the anthem because that’s not important. The anthem don’t speak for me. It never has.”

Despite her own vindication, Berry nevertheless has been a strong advocate for Black communities and their struggles for equality. In particular, subjected to racism and police brutality.

“It’s really important for me and my community just to be able to represent,” Berry said. “I think sports is a distraction. Sports is entertainment. But my purpose and my voice and mission is bigger than the sport. So me being able to represent my communities and my people and those who have died at the hands of police brutality, those who have died to this systemic racism, I feel like that’s the important part. That’s why I’m going. And that’s why I was here today.”

“I feel like that’s not enough,” Berry added. “It’s our sacrifice. It’s our podium. It’s our moment. So we should be able to protest whatever we want. It’s not for them to decide.”

Clearly, Berry will continue to use the sporting arena as an opportunity to demonstrate her belief systems through symbolic protest. Tokyo awaits.

“When I get there,” Berry said, somewhat mischievously, “I’ll figure out something to do.”

It now appears that sporting culture has shifted towards the needs and beliefs of the individual athlete.

If an athlete has a personal issue, in particular a social one, then it seems to be fair to air such grievance in a symbolic, visual manner when millions are watching.

Indeed, it is almost expected. Especially since the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) announced that they would not sanction athletes at the Olympic trials over demonstrations related to social and racial justice.

The question is whether sport and sporting events should be the place for political and social protests.

There is history.

During their medal ceremony in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City on October 16, 1968, two African-American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, each raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the US national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

And of course, taking the knee, famously by 49er Colin Kaepernick during the anthem in 2016.

What happens when school children and adolescents, college students imitate their sporting heroes and demonstrate accordingly?

As the NFL and NBA found out, there is no stopping social change.

 

Image via CNN

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