Facing criticism from athletes and growing calls for change, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee announced Thursday that it will not punish American athletes who stage political or social protests at the Olympics.

The USOPC made the decision in response to recommendations issued by the Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice, a group of U.S. athletes and Olympic sports stakeholders who are calling on the International Olympic Committee to amend its charter to allow peaceful protests by athletes at an Olympic or Paralympic Games.

Known as Rule 50 in the IOC charter, the provision has been under scrutiny, and the IOC this year tasked its athlete commission to explore possible changes. The USOPC has also been focused on the issue, after facing heavy criticism for reprimanding a pair of American athletes who staged protests at the Pan American Games in August 2019.

This spring, as social unrest broke out across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody, the USOPC established a working group to study Rule 50 and issues of social and racial justice. The result was a four-page statement that was sent Wednesday to the IOC and made public Thursday, in which the group contends that the IOC’s current rules “violate athletes’ rights to free speech and freedom of expression.”

“The silencing of athletes during the Games is in stark contrast to the importance of recognizing participants in the Games as humans first and athletes second,” the group wrote. “Prohibiting athletes to freely express their views during the Games, particularly those from historically underrepresented and minoritized groups, contributes to the dehumanization of athletes that is at odds with key Olympic and Paralympic values.”

An IOC spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Athlete protests have been fiercely debated throughout the Olympic world this year, facing resistance from some IOC leaders. While the IOC has repeatedly said protests do not belong in Olympic venues, on the playing field or on medals podiums, the organization has begun to explore other ways athletes can use their platforms to voice their opinions.

The USOPC’s new stance stands as the biggest call to date for a change to the rule.

“The USOPC values the voices of Team USA athletes and believes that their right to advocate for racial and social justice, and be a positive force for change, absolutely aligns with the fundamental values of equality that define Team USA and the Olympic and Paralympic movements,” Sarah Hirshland, the USOPC’s chief executive, said in a statement.

Typically, the IOC has turned to national organizing committees such as the USOPC to issue any sanctions over a Rule 50 violation. With the USOPC now refusing to do so, it’s not clear how the IOC might handle an American athlete who chooses to demonstrate at an Olympics.

The USOPC has been heavily criticized over the years for its application and adherence to the rule. Sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos were famously kicked out of the Olympic Village at the 1968 Summer Games after they raised gloved fists into the air on the medals podium. More recently, the USOPC placed fencer Race Imboden and hammer thrower Gwen Berry on probation after they staged separate demonstrations at the 2019 Pan Am Games.

“It is clear now that this organization should have supported instead of condemned, and advocated for understanding instead of relying on previous precedent,” Hirshland said in a letter to U.S. athletes Thursday. “For that, I apologize, and look forward to a future where rules are clear, intentions are better understood, and voices are empowered.”

The IOC has been soliciting feedback on Rule 50 from athletes, national governing bodies and other stakeholders around the world, and it is expected to share the athletes’ commission findings early next year.

In a Thursday conference call with U.S. reporters, Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, the global governing body for track and field, said he supported athletes using their platform and voice. Coe last weekend honored Smith, Carlos and Australian Peter Norman – the top-three finishers in the 200-meter race at the 1968 Olympics – with the organization’s President’s Award.

“I want our athletes to feel that they are engaged and are part of the world, that they reflect the world that we live in,” said Coe, a four-time Olympic medalist himself.

In urging the IOC to amend its charter, the USOPC task force called on the IOC to “recognize that protests focused on human rights and social justice initiatives do not qualify as ‘divisive disruptions’ of the Games and should not be met with the same consequences as hate speech, the promotion of racist ideology, or expressions of discriminatory propaganda.”

“We want to make unmistakably clear that human rights are not political,” the group wrote. “Yet, they have been politicized both in the U.S. and globally to perpetuate the wrongful and dehumanizing myth of sport as an inherently neutral domain.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.