— Published 24 February 2022

At the Commonwealth Games, athletes will be able to raise their fists

The IOC has been caught off guard. Unlike the Olympic Games, athletes will be able to express an opinion openly, including on the podium, at the upcoming Commonwealth Games, scheduled for this year in Birmingham, Great Britain. Unlike the Olympics, they will not risk punishment by raising a fist or taking a knee on the competition field, even during the ceremonies.

The Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) made the announcement on Wednesday 23 February, five months and a handful of days before the multi-sport event (28 July to 8 August). It unveiled a set of “guiding principles” designed to ensure the rights and defence of athletes.

Competitors will be allowed to hold up an Aboriginal flag, for example, for an Australian athlete during his or her lap of honour, without risk of punishment. A medallist will be allowed to raise a point on the podium when receiving the medal. It will be possible to take a knee in the competition area.

On the other hand, the freedom of expression granted to athletes must not open the door to hate messages or protests explicitly targeting a specific organisation, person or country.

It is the belief of the CGF that athlete advocacy and activism humanises, rather than politicises, sport, said CGF President Louise Martin, justifying the step forward. I am proud of our approach to help strengthen the athlete voice. We want to encourage the positive, not police the negative. Athletes are agents of change and ambassadors of respect, impartiality and non-discrimination.”

Will the CGF’s decision encourage the IOC to follow suit? Last year, the IOC relaxed Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter on freedom of expression at the Olympic Games. After extensive consultation by its Athletes’ Commission, it accepted the principle of expressing an opinion, including a political or social one, at the Games. However, it is important to clarify that this is not to be done on the competition field or in the ceremonies. Athletes can now express themselves to the media, in particular, or on social networks, but they are still prohibited from doing so on the podium.

In practice, this relaxation of Rule 50 has not had a very spectacular effect. At the Tokyo Games, where the new version of the Charter was applied for the first time, expressions of opinion were rare.

But American Raven Saunders, who came third in the shot put, caused a stir by forming an X with her arms after receiving her medal.

She explained that she wanted to symbolise “the meeting point of all oppressed people“. Raven Saunders went on to say that her gesture was a “wake-up call” for the black community, the LGBTQIA+ community, and all people facing mental health issues.

Under its rules, the IOC should have sanctioned the American. She could have lost her bronze medal. But the Olympic body let the matter drag on. Then Raven Saunders’ personal tragedy – her mother died a few hours after the shot put final – prompted the IOC not to issue a sanction. “Out of respect for her pain,” the IOC said.

At the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, the IOC also did not sanction Ukrainian skeleton athlete Vladyslav Heraskevych after he held up a sign reading “No War in Ukraine” at the bottom of the track after a run. The reference to tensions between Russia and Ukraine was explicit. But the body considered that the young athlete’s gesture was a general call for peace.

In both cases, the IOC was forced to navigate between the application of its Charter and the risk of sanctions that would have tarnished its image. Not easy. At the 2022 Commonwealth Games, the rules will be clearer. And the athletes will be freer.