It’s time for the Olympics, which is always exciting. But let’s be honest: while the Olympic Games are fun for us spectators, it is a seriously troublesome industry – from the the human displacement it causes in the cities that hold the games; the inequities showcased during the event; the sexist policies of the IOC; and now, the risk associated with hosting the games in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. And honestly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
However, in spite of these challenges and complications related to the Olympics and sports in general, it’s important to acknowledge how many athletes – Olympians and beyond – have used their platforms to advance fights for social change. Sports are one of the most iconic cultural touchstones; and athletes have the power to influence the minds and actions of millions of people. And increasingly, we are seeing professional athletes spread awareness about worthy causes through displays of activism on the public stages they have worked so hard to win.
So let’s take this opportunity to look back at a few of the most well-known social justice movements that Olympic competitors and professional athletes have brought to the public’s eye in the past century.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos
During the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, Tommie Smith won the gold medal in the 200-meter sprint and John Carlos won the bronze medal. Together, the pair raised gloved, fisted hands to show support for the Black Power movement in one of the most iconic photos ever shown in TIME Magazine.
Along with them stood the Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, who showed support for the cause. All three men faced significant backlash as a result.
In addition to being one of the greatest gymnasts ever, Simone Biles also used the focus that was placed on her to speak out against USA Gymnastics, whose inaction placed her and hundreds of other women and young girls into the predatory hands of Dr. Larry Nassar. Her refusal to be silent has helped show solidarity with the myriad of women who have undergone horrific abuse at the hands of people who were supposed to be ensuring their health.
On top of that, Biles also refused to be shamed for not smiling when she performed on Dancing with the Stars. When encouraged to smile more, she responded, “smiling doesn’t win you gold medals.”
Though Jesse Owens did not issue a statement of activism when he took part in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, his actions alone displayed strength in the face of adversity. He was the first athlete to win four gold medals in a single game, and broke three world records in the process, all while Adolf Hitler aimed to show the world the supposed ‘superiority’ of the Aryan race in physical performance.
For six seasons, Colin Kaepernick played for the 49ers; but in 2016, he took a brave, risky step that changed his career forever. During the national anthem, he chose to drop to one knee in an effort to protest police brutality in a non-violent manner, spurring a movement by athletes in football and beyond. His actions caused him to be blackballed by his team’s owners. He was ruthlessly criticized by some, supported by others, and continues dedicating his time and efforts to advocacy.
Venus Williams, an American tennis professional, protested against the unequal pay amounts given to male and female Wimbledon champions in 2005 and 2006. She wrote a piece about the pay inequality for The Times of London that soon reached the desk of Parliament.
After winning a Wimbledon trophy for the fourth time in 2007, Venus Williams became the first woman to earn the same amount of money as the male champion counterpart. She continues to pioneer for closure of pay gaps throughout the world of tennis.
LeBron James has advocated for several worthy causes over the years, from 2012 when he and his teammates on the Miami Heat wore hoodies to highlight the racist murder of Trayvon Martin, to the time he and his teammates wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts to protest the murder of Eric Garner in 2014.
In addition, James founded More Than A Vote, which aims to improve voter turnout and maintain voting rights within the black community.
He has been a longstanding pioneer for positive change and continues to spread the word about worthy causes.
The ability and willingness of professional athletes to advocate for for social movements is something to be respected. They face almost certain ridicule when they choose to step forward and take a stand; however, their ability to spread awareness is a unique one. From Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar‘s advocacy during his time as a player and long after, there are far more stories than just the ones we’ve shared above. And now, we’re hoping that during this year’s Olympics, at such a pivotal time in our history, we’ll have the chance to add a few more examples of athletes fighting for social change to this list.