Athletes at the Commonwealth Games this year will be allowed to raise a fist on the podium to protest in favour of racial equality, and wave Pride flags in support of LGBT+ rights during victory laps, the Guardian has learned.
The 4,500 athletes expected in Birmingham this summer will also be permitted to wear clothing, armbands and badges on the podium to support social justice causes under radical new “guiding principles” for athlete advocacy due to be announced on Tuesday.
But while the move will delight many athletes and human rights campaigners, insiders are also expecting a backlash from some commentators, who may try to rebrand the event as the “Common-woke Games”.
The decision to allow athletes to raise a fist on the podium in support of Black Lives Matter is particularly evocative, as it will bring back memories of Mexico 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos used a black power salute on the Olympic podium to protest against racial injustice in America.
Within 48 hours of their protest both men were kicked out of those Games at the urging of the International Olympic Committee president, Avery Brundage – and, even now, the IOC forbids athletes from any kind of protest or demonstration on the podium, field of play, or during ceremonies.
However senior figures at the Commonwealth Games Federation believe that a more enlightened policy is now needed. The hope is that by allowing more freedom of expression in Birmingham it will allow athletes to better become – in the words of one source – “agents for change in improving the world for the better”.
It is also expected that the CGF will argue that strengthening athlete advocacy and activism humanises, rather than politicises, sport – a view very different to that taken by the IOC.
Another notable change for Birmingham 2022 is that Aboriginal flags will be allowed on victory laps – a decision that stirs images of the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria when the Australian Cathy Freeman proudly held the flags of both her country and her people over her head, after winning the 400m.
At the time such a celebration was not permitted and Freeman was publicly reprimanded by Australia’s chef de mission for the Games, Arthur Tunstall, who said: “She should have carried the Australian flag first up, and [we should have] not seen the Aboriginal flag at all.”
Allowing Pride flags may also prove to be controversial in some nations given homosexuality is still illegal in 36 of the 72 countries that will compete in Birmingham. However the move is likely to be warmly endorsed by Tom Daley, who has regularly used his platform to suggest that the Commonwealth should be doing more to support LGBT rights.
Speaking after winning gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast – when homosexuality was illegal in 37 of the countries taking part – the British diver said: “You want to feel comfortable in who you are when you are standing on that diving board and for 37 Commonwealth countries that are here participating that is not the case.
“I feel with the Commonwealth, we can really help push some of the other nations to relax their laws on anti-gay stuff.”
Under the new guidelines athletes will be reminded that protests will be subject to the CGF ‘Charter of Good Conduct’ and must be done in “a tolerant and positive way”.
Athletes will also be told that protests against a person, country or organisation – as well as actions such as defacing a national flag on the podium, hate speech, and making hand gestures affiliated with hate groups – are still forbidden.