Turned Her Back on The US Flag: Should Gwen Berry be Disqualified From The Olympics?

Published June 28th, 2021 - 02:13 GMT
Gwen Berry
Gwen Berry (Twitter)
Highlights
'But I don't really want to talk about the anthem because that's not important. The anthem doesn't speak for me. It never has.' 

Hammer thrower Gwen Berry has defended turning her back on the US flag during the national anthem at the US Olympic trials, writing on Instagram 'I meant what I said. Period,' after being inundated with backlash online. 

Berry, 31, was on the podium at the trials in Oregon on Sunday when the anthem started playing. Her white competitors, DeAnna Price and Brooke Andersen, turned to face the flag and placed their hands on their hearts but Berry, a vocal BLM activist, turned to face the stands, put her hands on her hips and then held up a t-shirt bearing the words 'athlete activist'. 

In interviews later, she said she felt like officials only played the anthem to 'set her up' and that she had been told it would be played before she walked on to the podium, not while she was there. Berry is a known activist who has protested in sports before. She said she thought she was being disrespected by the trial organizers, and said: 'The anthem doesn't speak for me. It never has. I didn't really want to be up there. Like I said, it was a setup. I was hot, I was ready to take my pictures and get into some shade,' she said. 

The trial organizers insisted this wasn't the case and that the anthem played every day at the same time.   

Berry was later slammed by conservatives like Ted Cruz who said her protest was disrespectful and who claimed she hated her country. 

Berry doubled down on Twitter and Instagram on Sunday night, insisting that she loves her country. 

'I said what I said... I meant what I said.. STOP PLAYING WITH ME!! PERIOD!' she wrote on Instagram along with the hashtag #activistAthlete. 

On Twitter, she said: 'I never said I hated this country! People try to put words in my mouth but they can’t. That’s why I speak out. I LOVE MY PEOPLE.' 

'These comments really show that: 1.) people in American rally patriotism over basic morality. 2.) Even after the murder of George Floyd and so many others; the commercials, statements, and phony sentiments regarding black lives were just a hoax.'  

She replied 'f**k you' to a Fox News story which said her actions would leave readers 'dumbfounded', and retweeted a meme which portrayed former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. 

Walker had tweeted: 'What is wrong with people? Growing up, everyone stood for the American flag. Didn't matter your politics, race, sex, income, religion; everyone stood for the flag. 

'It was one of those civic rituals that brought us together. It still should today,' after seeing Berry's protest. 

Texas Senator Ted Cruz also took to Twitter to react to the story, writing: 'Why does the Left hate America? Sure, we have our faults, but no nation in the history of the world has liberated more people from captivity, has lifted more out of poverty, has bled more for freedom, or has blessed more w/ abundance. God bless America.'

Vic DeGrammont, a Republican congressional candidate in Florida, wrote on Twitter: 'If you can't respect the flag or anthem then you shouldn't be allowed to complete.'  

Opinion writer Josh Jordan mocked Berry's claim that she was tricked into standing on the podium for when the anthem was played. 'Yes, the US Olympics committee spent their time meticulously planning to make sure that the national anthem was played at the exact moment she was on the podium… because everyone knows the Olympics is all about (checks tweet) Gwen Berry,' he wrote sarcastically.

Journalist David Steinberg suggested a different athlete be sent in Berry's place. 'Send the fourth-place finisher,' he wrote. 'Gwen Berry has a world of options if she doesn't want to compete under our flag. 

'Not a penny of taxpayer money should fund her campaign to make Americans hate each other.' 

Speaking on Fox News, wrestler Tyrus Murdoch said: 'We've had some issues in this country especially as a black man when I go to Tommy Smith, John Carlos, Jessie Owens who they had issues, they fought, they wanted dignity, but they also wanted a seat at the table.

'They wanted to show how much they loved their country, how much they belong, and human rights issues and they fought for it. This isn't it. Even if we are taking a knee on the baseball game, I have no problem with a professional athlete being a citizen, taking a respectful knee during the flag if that's what you choose to do while still honoring the flag, I have no issue...

'[But] why are you even competing in the Olympics if you hate the flag and the country so much? If it's such a horrible place, why are you doing it?' Murdoch asked of Berry.

Berry hit back at the criticism she was receiving on social media over the incident. 'These comments really show that: 1.) people in American (sic) rally patriotism over basic morality,' she wrote on Twitter.

'2.) Even after the murder of George Floyd and so many others; the commercials, statements, and phony sentiments regarding black lives were just a hoax.'

She later added: 'I never said I hate this country! People try to put words in my mouth but they can't. That's why I speak out. I LOVE MY PEOPLE.'

'I feel like it was a set-up, and they did it on purpose,' Berry said earlier, who finished third to make her second U.S. Olympic team. 'I was pissed, to be honest.'

Berry previously protested during competition against racism, most recently raising a fist at the trials on Thursday, and said that she felt insulted by the Star-Spangled Banner playing as she took the podium. 

'They had enough opportunities to play the national anthem before we got up there,' she said. 'I was thinking about what I should do. 

'Eventually I stayed there and I swayed, I put my shirt over my head. It was real disrespectful.' 

'It really wasn't a message. I didn't really want to be up there. Like I said, it was a setup. I was hot, I was ready to take my pictures and get into some shade,' added Berry.

'They said they were going to play it before we walked out, then they played it when we were out there,' Berry said. 

'But I don't really want to talk about the anthem because that's not important. The anthem doesn't speak for me. It never has.' 

USA Track and Field said the anthem was played once every day at the trials according to a published schedule. 

Saturday's schedule listed the time for the anthem as 5.20pm, though it began at around 5.25pm. 

'We didn't wait until the athletes were on the podium for the hammer throw awards,' spokeswoman Susan Hazzard said in a statement. 

'The national anthem is played every day according to a previously published schedule.'

'We're thrilled with the women's hammer throw team that selected themselves for the Games,' added Hazzard. 

Berry was suspended for 12 months by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) for a raised fist at the 2019 Pan American Games, but did so again before Thursday's qualifying round as part of her quest for social change.

The USOPC in March reversed its stance and said that athletes competing in the U.S. Olympic trials can protest, including kneeling or raising a clenched fist on the podium or at the start line during the national anthem.

Berry has promised to use her position to keep raising awareness about social injustices in her home country.

'My purpose and my mission is bigger than sports,' Berry said. 'I'm here to represent those ... who died due to systemic racism. That's the important part. 

'That's why I'm going. That's why I'm here today.'

Last June, Berry demanded a letter of apology from USOPC for sanctioning her over her 2019 Pan American Games protest, and then revised her demand to ask for a public apology from USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland.

Hirshland met the demand and issued a statement after meeting with Berry privately.

'I am grateful to Gwen for her time and her honesty last night,' Hirshland said in the statement. 

'I heard her. I apologized for how my decisions made her feel and also did my best to explain why I made them. Gwen has a powerful voice in this national conversation, and I am sure that together we can use the platform of Olympic and Paralympic sport to address and fight against systematic inequality and racism in our country.' 

Now, Berry will be heading to her second Olympics, and on Saturday she saw what it will take to earn a spot on the podium in Tokyo.

DeAnna Price won the trials with a throw of 263 feet, 6 inches, which was nearly 7 feet longer than Berry's throw. Brooke Andersen took second place.

Price, who became only the second woman in history to crack 80 meters, said she had no problem sharing the stage with Berry.

'I think people should say whatever they want to say. I'm proud of her,' Price said.

She figures to be going for gold along with world-record holder Anita Wlodarczyk of Poland, who is expected to be in Japan. Meanwhile, Andersen's throw was a mere 2 inches shy of Berry's personal best.

Berry said she needs to get 'my body right, my mind right and my spirit right' for the Olympics. 

The women's hammer throw starts August 1 in Tokyo. 

Athletes will be allowed to protest at next year's Tokyo Games without facing any form of punishment.  

The decision is a response to a set of recommendations from a USOPC athlete group that seeks changes to the much-maligned Rule 50 of the IOC Olympic Charter, which prohibits inside-the-lines protests at the games.

It was this rule that most famously led to the ouster of U.S. medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City after the sprinters raised their fists on the medals stand to protest racial inequality in the United States.

'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,' said the athlete statement that accompanied the recommendations.

The athletes seek changes that would bring the policy closer to those in major U.S. and international leagues, most of which relaxed their rules regarding demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd's death in May at the hands of Minneapolis police and the unrest that ensued. NBA players, for instance, pushed repeatedly for assurances they could use their platform to address social justice issues.

'You see athletes in sports leagues becoming aware of the power they have in driving social change,' said Yannick Kluch, a sports culture professor at Rowan University who helped the athletes tackle these issues.

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee heeded calls from American athletes by announcing Thursday that it won´t sanction them for raising their fists or kneeling on the medals stand at next year´s Tokyo Games and beyond.

The decision is a response to a set of recommendations from a USOPC athlete group that seeks changes to the much-maligned Rule 50 of the IOC Olympic Charter, which prohibits inside-the-lines protests at the games.

It was this rule that most famously led to the ouster of U.S. medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City after the sprinters raised their fists on the medals stand to protest racial inequality in the United States.

'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,' said the athlete statement that accompanied the recommendations.

The athletes seek changes that would bring the policy closer to those in major U.S. and international leagues, most of which relaxed their rules regarding demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd's death in May at the hands of Minneapolis police and the unrest that ensued. NBA players, for instance, pushed repeatedly for assurances they could use their platform to address social justice issues.

'You see athletes in sports leagues becoming aware of the power they have in driving social change," said Yannick Kluch, a sports culture professor at Rowan University who helped the athletes tackle these issues.

The IOC has defended the rule, explaining that political statements have no place inside the competition venues at the Olympics. Though the IOC has called on its own athlete committee to explore possible changes to the rule, the call for action from the country that wins the most medals and funnels the most money to the Olympic movement stands out as the most high-profile pushback against the ban to date.

IOC athletes chair Kirsty Coventry said many of those who have provided feedback to her commission 'have also recognized the practical question of how to choose between the opinions of hundreds of issues from different angles across the world."

The USOPC timed the announcement to fall on Human Rights Day, which has been observed on Dec. 10 by the United Nations since 1948.

'Not only has the U.S. athlete family been waiting on something that speaks to who we are, but we know the world was waiting on us for guidance as to how we can get this right,' said Moushaumi Robinson, a 2004 Olympic gold medalist in track who led the athletes group.

The USOPC's CEO, Sarah Hirshland, said she expects criticism from the IOC and others, but we 'can´t walk the walk as a movement if we don´t look at this issue, in particular.'

The USOPC decision, which also will apply to Olympic trials, comes in the wake of a 19-month stretch during which its willingness to adhere to the IOC directive became untenable.

In the summer of 2019, Hirshland reprimanded American hammer thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden for violating Rule 50, after Berry raised her fist and Imboden kneeled on the medals stand at the Pan-Am Games in Peru.

Then, during the period of social unrest that followed Floyd´s killing by a white police officer while the Black man was in handcuffs, Berry called out the USOPC for being hypocritical when it announced it would follow the lead of many sports leagues by increasing efforts to address issues of racial inequality in the U.S.

The USOPC established a handful of working groups led by athletes who tackled different aspects of social injustice in the Olympic movement and society in general. Conclusions from the group on protests and demonstrations were the most highly anticipated.

That group, which sought input from more than 40 people, wants wholesale changes in the IOC rule that reads, 

'No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.'

'Often, you hear people saying `I don´t want to mix politics with sports,´" Kluch said. "But these are two (false) assumptions. The first is that human rights and race and social justice are political. They´re about human dignity, not politics. It´s also very clear that human rights are not political but have been heavily politicized.'

The group is still debating what sort of gestures and demonstrations it would recommend to be allowed. The USOPC says it won't discipline athletes for "respectful" and "peaceful" demonstrations, and Hirshland said, "I can't imagine that kneeling or raising a fist would be considered" inappropriate.

The federation also wants to give athletes clarity on the way the rule is enforced. In the past, when an athlete has run afoul of Olympic rules, the IOC has largely left it to the athlete´s national federation to dish out the punishment, which can include banishing the athlete from the games. The USOPC´s refusal to sanction an athlete would put the IOC in position of having to determine punishment and figure out who would administer it.

The IOC has sent a survey to athletes across the globe for their opinions on Rule 50 and other issues. 

Its athlete committee, which includes American Kikkan Randall, will use that feedback to make its own recommendation about the future of Rule 50. The results are expected in the first quarter of 2021.

This article has been adapted from its original source.


© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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