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Pan Am Games Protesters Get Probation. Olympians Get a Warning.

The 2020 Olympics in Tokyo will take place amid sagging credibility of the Olympic movement itself and ahead of a divisive American presidential election. The Games will occur during awakenings to gender equity and sexual abuse. They will happen during a rise of nationalism around the world. And they will come at a time when athletes seem to have more willingness and access than ever to express their thoughts on politics, social issues and human rights.

So when the top United States Olympic official on Tuesday sent letters to two American athletes who protested the national anthem at the recent Pan American Games in Peru, placing both on 12 months’ probation, she also included a warning to prospective Olympians about making political gestures at the Summer Games next year. But trying to silence athletes in Tokyo might be futile when some feel more emboldened than ever to speak out.

The letters sent this week, from the chief executive of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, Sarah Hirshland, went to the hammer thrower Gwen Berry, who raised her fist during the national anthem, and the fencer Race Imboden, who knelt on the medal podium.

Such wrist slaps might become more consequential if repeated, Ms. Hirshland suggested in her letters, which seemed intended for a broader audience.

“It is also important for me to point out that, going forward, issuing a reprimand to other athletes in a similar instance is insufficient,” Ms. Hirshland wrote in the letters, which were first obtained and reported by The Associated Press.

ImageCreditJuan Ponce/EPA, via Shutterstock

But this is a far different environment from 1968, when the American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos were sent home from the Summer Olympics in Mexico City after making a gloved-fisted protest against social inequality on the medal stand.

President Trump could respond with vitriol to any criticism of him during the Olympics, as he did in a Twitter spat with the American soccer star Megan Rapinoe during the recent Women’s World Cup, but “much of the country is going to be much more sympathetic” now than in 1968, said David Wallechinsky, the president of the International Society of Olympic Historians.

Today’s athletes can build support through social media and, in some cases, are buoyed by their coaches and companies like Nike. There also are many more avenues to convey their thoughts beyond silent gestures of protest. In interviews, Gregg Popovich, the coach of the San Antonio Spurs, who will lead the United States men’s basketball team in Tokyo, has been highly critical of Mr. Trump.

“I feel there is a group of people who are always going to think that standing up for the many is more important than the repercussions for themselves,” Mr. Imboden said.

Olympic Protests Read more about why Race Imboden said he felt compelled to protest.

Douglas Hartmann, the chairman of the sociology department at the University of Minnesota, who has studied Olympic protests, said, “I think more athletes are more inclined to speak out on social issues than any moment probably since the ’60s.” But, he added, “I’m pretty sure they are not inclined to do that during the actual competitions and ceremonies.”

An athlete who makes a political gesture on a medal stand, or in a uniform, or after scoring a goal or winning a race, would be violating the Olympic Charter, and risks ejection from the Games, not to mention public excoriation and the loss of financial opportunity, if not the medal itself.

But such public gestures are precisely what the International Olympic Committee “is terrified about,” Mr. Hartmann said.

If any large-scale protests — from Americans or athletes from the world’s other hot spots — took hold and found public sympathy during the Tokyo Olympics, Mr. Hartmann said, they could provide a transformative moment and undermine the Western view of sport as being “sacred, purely fun and an inherently positive social activity.”

The I.O.C. takes an often contradictory position, discouraging political activity but also supporting it if it portrays the Olympic committee as a positive moral force. For instance, the Ethiopian marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa was not penalized for crossing his arms above his head as he reached the finish line in second place at the 2016 Rio Olympics, protesting the treatment of his ethnic group, the Oromo people.

“They want credit for everything good and want to run from everything controversial,” Mr. Hartmann said of the I.O.C.

What gets tricky, Mr. Hartmann said, is when “athletes take on causes or issues that to most observers seem not political but within their rights, as moral causes.”

So what would happen if, say, an American athlete protested silently at the Tokyo Olympics, as Mr. Imboden, the fencer, did at the Pan Am Games? He said his decision to kneel was over what he considered “shortcomings” in the United States like “racism, gun control, mistreatment of immigrants and a president who spreads hate.”

Surely, some people would consider that a moral act, and many would be in agreement with Mr. Imboden’s stance on those issues. But many others would disagree, and might consider any athlete who took a similar action as unpatriotic.

Ms. Hirshland, the chief executive, wrote in letters to Mr. Imboden and Ms. Berry, the hammer thrower, that: “The goal of a Games that are free from political speech is to focus our collective energy on the athletes’ performances, and the international unity and harmony each Games seek to advance. When an individual makes his or her grievances, however legitimate, more important than that of their competitors and the competition itself, that unity and harmony is diminished. The celebration of sport, and human accomplishment, is lost.”

In truth, though, sports and politics are inextricably linked.

Harry Edwards, a sociologist who counseled Mr. Smith and Mr. Carlos and the former N.F.L. quarterback Colin Kaepernick on their protests, said of the Tokyo Games, “The chance of no athletes protesting is zero.”

The key to the impact of any protests, he said, would be how they are framed leading to the Games. The International Olympic Committee and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee are “morally bankrupt” and particularly vulnerable to challenges to their legitimacy by athletes, Mr. Edwards said, given endemic corruption and indifference to protecting athletes from sexual abuse in gymnastics and other sports.

If numerous athletes protested against the very organizers of the Games, while also taking political stances, Mr. Edwards said, “the I.O.C. and the U.S.O.C. can’t win both of those fights.”

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