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American athletes have been planning protest at Olympics for weeks

                                Raven Saunders, of the United States, poses with her silver medal on women’s shot put at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, in Tokyo, Japan.


    Raven Saunders, of the United States, poses with her silver medal on women’s shot put at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, in Tokyo, Japan.

TOKYO >> Raven Saunders, the American shot-putter who delivered the first political demonstration on the podium at the Tokyo Olympics when she raised her arms and crossed them in the shape of an X shortly after receiving her silver medal, said today that American athletes have been planning their protest in defiance of International Olympic Committee regulations for several weeks.

In an interview tonight, Saunders said the planning took place over a group text message with athletes in multiple sports. The group decided that the X would be their symbol and that it represents unity with oppressed people.

She made the gesture as the ceremony concluded, during a session for photographers after the medals were handed out and the Chinese national anthem had been played for the winner, Gong Lijiao.

As Saunders left, she told reporters that her act was “for oppressed people.”

“I wanted to be respectful of the national anthem being played,” Saunders said.

The gesture has led to a standoff over free speech between the IOC and U.S. Olympic officials as the IOC grapples with what to do if the Americans refuse to penalize an athlete for violating rules limiting demonstrations on the medal podium.

The IOC and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee have conflicting rules and views regarding the exercise of free speech during the Games, and even how penalties should be meted out.

The IOC, which prohibits demonstrations on the podium or during competition, said on Sunday night that an athlete’s national Olympic committee is required to issue any required punishment. U.S. officials have said they will not punish any athlete for exercising the right to free speech that does not express hatred.

Saunders said Monday the gesture she made and the X symbol that other athletes have displayed represented solidarity with the many communities that she is a part of — people who are Black, LGBTQ and those who have struggled with mental health as she has.

Race Imboden, an American fencer, had a black X with a circle around it on his hand during the medal ceremony for the foil competition on Sunday. Saunders said he was part of the group involved with the planning of the demonstration. She declined to say who else was involved because she did not want to put pressure on anyone to behave in a certain way.

Imboden did not immediately respond to an Instagram message. But on his Instagram account, he posted images of Saunders with her arms in an X and a photo of himself holding his bronze medal with the circled X visible on his hand.

On Tuesday, Gwen Berry, the American hammer thrower who turned away from the American flag during the U.S. track and field trials in June, and has said she is planning protest statements at the Olympics, is scheduled to compete. So is Noah Lyles, the American sprinter who often wears a black glove and raises his fist on the track before his races.

Mark Adams, chief spokesperson for the IOC, said on Monday that leaders of the two organizations and World Athletics, track and field’s international governing body, were discussing the Saunders incident.

“We want to fully understand what is going on with the matter and take it from there,” Adams said.

Kate Hartman, chief spokesperson for the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, said the organization’s leaders had pointed out to IOC officials that Saunders did not perform her demonstration during the awarding of the medals or the playing of the Chinese anthem.

“That is important to us,” Hartman said.

In a statement today, the USOPC said it was still discussing what happened with the IOC and other groups.

“Per the USOPC’s delegation terms, the USOPC conducted its own review and determined that Raven Saunders’ peaceful expression in support of racial and social justice that happened at the conclusion of the ceremony was respectful of her competitors and did not violate our rules related to demonstration,” the organization said in a statement.

Saunders said she was not concerned about any consequences she might face, which could include any number of sanctions because the IOC has never specified what penalties the violations might incur.

“I stood for what I stood for,” she said. “I got the medal. “I’m going to stand on what I said and I am going to keep fighting.”

Sarah Hirshland, chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said last month that international Olympic leaders “have the authority and the jurisdiction and a unique set of sanctions. We sit in a different seat.”

If the IOC orders the Americans to punish an athlete and they refuse to do so, they would be in violation of the Olympic Charter.

Asked what would happen next, Hartman said, “Now we wait.”

By waiting, though, and backing Saunders, the U.S. Olympic Committee is behaving far differently than American Olympic leaders did in 1968 and 1972, when they moved quickly to punish Black athletes who demonstrated on the podium or did not behave according to the IOC’s standards, forcing them to leave the Games.

World Athletics is also highly unlikely to discipline athletes because the federation does not have any rules against demonstrations on its books. Sebastian Coe, the federation’s president, said this year that he was “reluctant to discourage athletes from expressing their views, and I sense that the current generation is more willing to speak out than some previous generations were.”

U.S. officials are trying to eliminate the free speech issue before the Summer Games come to Los Angeles in 2028. Saunders, who is 25, said she plans to continue competing and will aim for the Olympic Games in 2024 in Paris.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “I can compete another 15 years.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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