The Olympic Games has loosened its rules on protesting but still prevents athletes from taking a stand against issues like racism on podiums, something Team GB’s biggest track star says is impossible to enforce
Dina Asher-Smith has hailed Marcus Rashford and the rest of the England football team’s “moral leadership” in the fight against racial inequality, and believes Olympic organisers would be “shooting themselves in the foot” by punishing athletes who use the platform of Tóquio 2020 to protest against racism.
Asher-Smith will be one of Great Britain’s strongest medal hopes when she takes to the track for the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m relay at the rearranged Olympics, which officially open with the Games’ opening ceremony on Friday.
O International Olympic Committee recently relaxed its strict rule 50, which states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” Some protests in certain areas are now permitted such as taking the knee before football matches, but gestures on podiums like the famous raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968 would theoretically still be punished just as the American sprinters were half a century ago.
England’s footballers persisted in taking the knee before Euro 2020 matches despite booing from some fans and a lack of backing from the prime minister Boris Johnson and home secretary Priti Patel, while Rashford has been particularly active on tackling issues of social injustice, and Asher-Smith admires their resolve.
“I think what Marcus and all the other players have been doing is fantastic," ela disse, speaking to the media from Team GB’s base at the Olympic Village. “It made me so proud to watch them and see how they conducted themselves. They are a credit to our nation and are showing a really good sense of moral leadership. I think as sportspeople we are proud, and as a Brit, as a black Brit, I was really proud through the Euros. I thought they represented our nation and our community incredibly well.”
At a time when the shockwaves emanating from George Floyd’s death continue to be felt across America and issues around race have stirred powerful emotions across the globe, Asher-Smith believes any attempts by the IOC to censure athletes would be impossible to see through.
“I see protesting and expressing yourself as a fundamental human right. If you were to penalise someone for standing up against racial inequality how on earth would that go, how on earth are you going to enforce that? Would you revoke someone’s medal for saying racism is wrong? How would you police that, particularly when people feel so strongly about that right now. If you were to penalise someone or revoke a medal, how would that go optically?
“I did see [rule 50] as completely unenforceable and I think they had no choice but to [ease] it otherwise they would have been faced with loads of athlete protests at the Games and it would have been very embarrassing for them. Unless they want to say they are against people being against racism I didn’t see how that was going to go.
“When it comes to people’s voices there’s very little you can control. When people feel strongly about something, particularly when it’s something that’s so close to your heart – particularly for me that topic would be racism, as a black woman you think about racism – I just think you can’t police people’s voice on that. I think that’s an incredibly difficult thing to do.
“Some of the Olympics’ most iconic moments have been the Black Power salute by Tommie Smith way back when, that is something people remember the Olympics for, something they’re very proud to see at the Olympic Games. So to think they’re suddenly going to get up and say ‘absolutely not’, I think they’d be shooting themselves in the foot.”
Asher-Smith will save any personal activism until after her job is complete in Tokyo. The 25-year-old is the reigning 200m world champion and is one of the favourites over both 100m and 200m here, a status enhanced by an impressive Diamond League victory earlier this month as well as the withdrawal of prominent rival Sha’Carri Richardson after the American sprinter tested positive for cannabis, having turned to it as a means of coping with her mother’s death.
“I feel sorry for her because her mother passed away,” Asher-Smith said of her rival. “I even said to my mum, ‘If you passed away I wouldn’t have done the trials’. That’s not a criticism, but emotionally it’s a lot. Obviously, lots of things happened after that and I’m absolutely in no position to tell someone how to grieve, I don’t think anybody is. That’s the first thing that comes into my mind and that’s why you feel sorry for her, because she’s grieving. If that was my mum… yeah. Rules are rules but the girl was grieving and so my heart goes out to her in that situation. Nobody wants to lose a parent. It’s awful.”
With the Olympics finally set for lift-off after years of preparation and months of uncertainty amid a pandemic which has forced Tokyo to ban spectators and enforce strict athlete bubbles, she would be forgiven for feeling the nerves. But for Asher-Smith it is a case of trying to contain her overflowing enthusiasm, and this week her coach John Blackie finally allowed to let out the excitement she has kept building up inside.
“At Heathrow loads of the BA [British Airways] people said’ Are you nervous?’ I was like ‘No! What is there to be nervous about?’ Obviously this is on a different scale but I line up for a race since I was eight years old and I’m very, very good at it. Obviously the stakes change, the mechanics change, the precision of it changes, but fundamentally this is something I do week in, week out. There’s absolutely nothing to be scared of.
“I love a show, I love a stage, I love putting together a great performance when it matters, when the lights are really on. That’s just part of me. I love championships. My coach always tells me to quell my excitement throughout the season until the championships, then let it loose. He told me yesterday I can get excited, so you’ll see more energy from me now.”