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Female athletes grabbing spotlight at Olympics with political and social demonstrations

"Women are certainly as vocal as ever," an expert said. The International Olympic Committee now allows for some demonstrations prior to competitions.
The Olympic Games-Tokyo 2020
Megan Rapinoe and the United States team take a knee, along with the referee, before kick off during the USA V New Zealand group G match at Saitama Stadium at the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games on July 24, 2021 in Tokyo.Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

When it comes to political and social demonstrations during the Tokyo Olympics: 2021 is the year of women.

Female athletes have attracted the spotlight on the international stage by championing racial equality and taking ownership of what they wear during competitions.

“Historically, we’ve seen the role of patriarchy sort of supersede … the voices, lived experiences of girls and women on the Olympic stage,” said Akilah Carter-Francique, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change at San Jose State University.

“What we’re seeing now is an acknowledgement of their value in their perspective on many of the issues that are taking place.”

Carter-Francique said the protests and demonstrations by female athletes in Tokyo are extensions of social movements that have fueled activism on American soil and abroad.

“The Black Lives Matter Movement, Me Too, prior to that, served as catalysts for groups that have been historically marginalized and silenced to speak up,” she said.

Nikita Parris #7 of Team Great Britain takes a knee prior to the Women's First Round Group E match between Japan and Great Britain on day one of the Tokyo Olympic Games at Sapporo Dome on July 24, 2021 in Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan.Masashi Hara / Getty Images

Multiple women’s soccer teams — including the USA women’s team before their opening match against Sweden — began their matches by taking knees in a gesture to end racism.

Other teams whose players knelt included Chile, England and New Zealand.

The soccer teams took advantage of a new rule implemented by the International Olympic Committee allowing them to “express their views” on the field of play prior to competition or during the introduction of the athlete or team, according to NPR.

The new guidelines allow for expressions if it isn’t against "people, countries, [organizations] and/or their dignity," and isn't disruptive, the news outlet reported.

Before the new rules, IOC regulations stated that no "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

Briana Scurry, a goalkeeper and U.S. Women’s National Team member from 1993 to 2008, said kneeling is an important tool in helping root out the racism that has been imbedded in soccer culture for years.

“Soccer overall has now leaned in a bit more in quelling racism that seems to be absolutely rampant in the sport, especially on the men’s side.”

Scurry said “being an instrument for social change” and advocating for women in the sport and society are ideas now embraced by national team members.

Much like women’s soccer players, another athlete carried the mantle of racial equality at the Olympics.

Luciana Alvarado, of Costa Rica, performs on the floor exercise during the women's artistic gymnastic qualifications at the Summer Olympics on July 25, 2021, in Tokyo.Ashley Landis / AP

Costa Rican gymnast Luciana Alvarado also carried the torch of protesting racial equality while in Tokyo, paying tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement in her historic Olympic performance Sunday.

Alvarado, the first gymnast from Costa Rica to qualify for the Olympics, concluded her floor routine Sunday by taking a knee, placing her left hand behind her back and raising her right fist into the air.

The 18-year-old's demonstration is the first of its kind on an international stage in elite gymnastics, according to NBC Olympics. Alvarado said the end of her routine was choreographed to highlight the importance of equal rights on a global stage.

“Because we’re all the same,” she said. “We’re all beautiful and amazing.”

Patrick Cottrell, political science professor with Linfield University, said, “Women certainly are as vocal as ever. That’s great because they have a lot to be vocal about.”

He said the Olympics has a long history of sexism, noting women were once banned from participating in the games. He also noted that women and athletes of color may be more impacted by their sports’ rules than other athletes, pointing to a recent decision prohibiting swim caps in the Olympics designed for Black swimmers.

“There are rules that are biased against them,” Cottrell said.

To bend and break those rules, women athletes have been challenging norms and fighting for their right to control what they wear while they compete.

Kim Bui, Pauline Schaefer and Elisabeth Seitz of Germany during the artistic gymnastics women's qualification during the Tokyo Olympic Games at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo on July 25, 2021.MIKE BLAKE / Reuters

The German gymnastics team chose personal comfort over tradition when they competed in full-length unitards that stretched to their ankles instead of leotards that stopped at the hips.

Similarly, the Norwegian handball team recently refused to wear bikini bottoms and was subsequently fined during the sports’ Euro 2021 tournament.

The German gymnastic's team first wore unitards at the European Artistic Gymnastics championships in April. Their outfits comply with the wardrobe rules of the International Gymnastics Federation.

Sarah Voss, a 21-year-old German, said the team wasn’t sure what they would wear during Olympic competition until shortly before the meet.

“We sat together and said, ‘OK, we want to have a big competition,’” Voss said. “We want to feel amazing, we want to show everyone that we look amazing.”

Before the games even began, and perhaps setting the tone for Tokyo, it was a female athlete who attracted worldwide headlines for her activism.

Hammer thrower Gwen Berry turned away from the American flag as the national anthem played while she stood on the podium, where she placed third and qualified for the Olympics.

Berry said she felt blindsided by the timing of the song during the track and field trials in Eugene, Oregon, late last month.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" was played once a night at the trials, and it began as Berry was on the podium after receiving her bronze medal.

“I feel like it was a set-up, and they did it on purpose,” Berry said of the timing of the anthem, according to The Associated Press. “I was pissed, to be honest.”

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

As the song played, Berry turned to face the stands, away from the flag, and eventually draped a black T-shirt that read “Activist, Athlete,” over her head.

After the incident, Berry said her primary goal is to raise awareness for social justice.

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