To protest or not to protest? That is the modern Shakespearean question athletes are asking themselves ever since the emergence of Colin Kaepernick. A recent decision by the International Olympic Committee has added more twists, drama and mystery to this very question, with the Chinese government benefitting from the answer.
With the 2020 Summer Olympics looming in Tokyo, the IOC has stated, "It is a fundamental principal that sport be neutral." Inasmuch, kneeling and other types of protests by athletes will not be allowed.
At first blush this appears to be great news for people like myself. I wholeheartedly believe that for a society to be free, it must allow political protest and free speech, even if the content of the protest and speech is deemed offensive and hateful by others.
That said, I also believe athletes who protest in uniform and on the playing field are wrong. Under those conditions, they are not representing just themselves, they are representing their teams, fans and sports as well, and have no right to lead a personal political protest on someone else's time and dime.
Protest on your own time, and I'll support your right to do so, even if I don't agree with the content of the protest. However, if you stage a personal protest while engaged in a team function or public athletic event, I would support any owner, coach or organization's right to consider disciplinary action for that athlete or athletes.
For those who are likeminded, it would seem the IOC's new rule is a step in the right direction. But here is the caveat that turns all this upside down. Some have speculated that this rule was put in place to discourage any protests on Chinese soil when they host the Winter Olympics in 2022. After all, the Chinese government has not been happy with recent protests and criticism that they are receiving from its citizens in Hong Kong, or for its treatment of the Uyghurs, or for how the government handled the initial outbreak of the coronavirus.
In China, to protest in a public forum is to, literally, put your life and liberty and general welfare on the line. To do so takes courage and comes with high stakes risks. Did the IOC ban protesting at the Olympics to please the Chinese government because of their sensitivity to criticism?
The timing of this question could not come at a more crucial time, as to a casual observer, one gets the sense that China is entering a decisive period, where its future is hanging in the balance. On one hand, in the last 30-plus years China has emerged as a superpower with the world's second-largest economy, and with a GDP growing faster than any major country in the Western world. Couple the Chinese economic might with a military growing both in sophistication and spending, and you have a dynamic and powerful nation.
On the other hand, economic growth is slowing, its population is aging, corruption is rampant, and the government is becoming increasingly paranoid. Inasmuch, it is busy taking rights away from its citizens, and using techniques reminiscent of Orwell's 1984 to spy on its people's movements, loyalty and thoughts.
How China responds to its internal challenges between now and the 2022 Winter Olympics, including how they treat protestors, will have a major ripple effect on not only the world's economy but its safety and security as well.
Matthew Kastel is a 25-year veteran of working as an executive in the world of sports, including professional teams, organizations, and some of the largest vendors in the industry. Matt has also written two novels and teaches and lectures at universities on the business of sports. For more information you can visit his website at thirdstrikeproductions.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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