Olympian Gwen Berry
Gwen Berry during the women's Hammer Throw event at the IAAF World Challenge Golden Spike athletics meeting in Ostrava, Czech Republic, 20 June 2019. (MARTIN DIVISEK/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Olympic Athlete and Activist Gwen Berry Turns Away From Flag During National Anthem Medal Ceremony She Claims Was a ‘Setup’

The Tokyo Olympics is shaping up to be a hotbed of protest and calls for social reform and increased social justice by American athletes. As the games grow nearer, track and field star Gwen Berry has made headlines across the country by turning away from the flag during her medal ceremony when the national anthem began playing and then covering her face with a t-shirt.

The viral and controversial moment occurred in Eugene, Oregon, just minutes after Berry completed her Olympic-qualifying toss in the hammer throw event with a throw of 241 feet 2 inches.

Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post reported that when Berry, who placed third in the event, took to the podium to accept her medal and place on the Olympic team, the national anthem started playing unexpectedly.

Berry, a proud activist who has protested for social change on the podium in the past, said her “impromptu protest” occurred only after what she claims to be a “setup” by officials running the event.

According to Kilgore, the national anthem is typically played only once a night at trials, unlike every medal ceremony at the Olympics. Berry said she didn’t think it would be a part of her medal ceremony based on that.

“I feel like it was setup. I feel like [the event organizers] did that on purpose, and I was pissed, to be honest,” she told Kilgore. “I was thinking about what I should do. Eventually, I just stayed there and just swayed. I put my shirt over my head. It was real disrespectful. I know they did that on purpose, but it’ll be all right. I see what’s up.”

“Berry has been a pivotal figure in the discussion over protest at Olympic and international events,” Kilgore said. “At the 2019 Pan-American Games in Peru, Berry raised her fist while standing atop the podium. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee placed her on probation for one year for violating Rule 50, the International Olympic Committee regulation that prohibits political protest. Last summer, the USOPC publicly and privately apologized to Berry. This year, it changed its rules to allow protest at domestic events.”

But even following those penalties and the resulting pushback from Olympic officials, Berry told the Washington Post she still intends to “use her voice to advocate for Black communities she feels have been wronged by police brutality and systemic racism.”

For their part, USA Track and Field officials said they did tell Berry the anthem would be played during her ceremony shortly before she walked to the podium. The national anthem had also been played previous nights at approximately the same time. Officials maintain that any issues it may have caused for Berry were merely coincidental.

Berry, however, remains unconvinced and committed to using her platform as an athlete to advance her cause.

“It’s really important for me and my community just to be able to represent,” she said. “I think sports is a distraction. Sports is entertainment. But my purpose and my voice and mission are bigger than the sport. So, me being able to represent my communities and my people and those who have died at the hands of police brutality, those who have died to this systemic racism, I feel like that’s the important part. That’s why I’m going. And that’s why I was here today.”

What form of protests from American athletes at the Olympics might take is still up for debate at the moment. The IOC had originally banned protests for social change from all athletes at Olympic medal ceremonies, but following events of the last 18 months around the globe, the group has rethought that policy. A new official decision on what will and won’t be allowed has yet to be announced.

Whatever they decide, Berry said she continues to feel strongly that shows of protest should be allowed: “It’s our sacrifice. It’s our podium. It’s our moment. So, we should be able to protest whatever we want. It’s not for them to decide.”

When asked by Kilgore just what she might do should she make the Olympic podium, Berry said she will decide when she gets there, adding with a smile, “I’ll figure out something to do.”


Related: For more recent diversity and inclusion news, click here.


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