IOC VP Anita DeFrantz cautions Olympic athletes not to protest on the podium

As the Tokyo Olympics begin, the highest-ranking American on the International Olympic Committee cautioned athletes that the medal podium is no place for political statements, and suggested the IOC itself has no business in politics -- even when a host country, such as China, home to the Winter Games in February, stands accused of genocide.

The strikingly blunt apolitical case made by Anita DeFrantz, an IOC vice president, mirrors the position of the Switzerland-based association that controls the Games, and comes as the delayed Tokyo Olympics play out amid a pandemic-related state of emergency and lingering global social unrest.

"The podiums belong to no one," DeFrantz said during a recent ESPN interview. "If you are fortunate enough to stand on one and you get to soak in that moment for the rest of your life, that moment is yours, but the podium is not yours."

That position will likely be tested in the next few weeks by athletes displaying support for Black Lives Matter and other causes.

Rule 50.2 of the Olympic Charter has long forbidden athletes from "every kind of demonstration or propaganda, whether political, religious, or racial, in the Olympic areas." Last month, the IOC tweaked the guidelines, allowing competitors greater freedom of expression before the start of an event as well as at news conferences. Athletes still can't make a political statement on the medal podium or in competition.

On Thursday, more than 150 current and former athletes, including Tommie Smith and John Carlos, whose protest at the 1968 Olympics became a symbol of the civil rights movement, signed a letter urging the IOC not to punish athletes who demonstrate.

Athlete advocacy groups and human rights groups are watching the IOC's reaction to potential Tokyo protests with an eye on the upcoming Beijing Games. They are fearful the IOC won't protect athletes who demonstrate from the Chinese government.

"What isn't clear from the IOC, particularly around Beijing, is what happens when an athlete has a shirt that says Free Uyghurs or something in their press conference?" says Peter Irwin, communications director for the Uyghur Human Rights Project. "The question is to what extent is the IOC going to make sure that these athlete rights are protected? And to what extent is the IOC going to be pressured by the Chinese government to detain the athletes? If you are an average citizen in China and something like that [happened] you would be detained for life."

DeFrantz, who has been a member of the IOC since 1986, was noncommittal when questioned on the organization's willingness to protect athletes' freedom of expression, particularly if they demonstrate in support of the Uyghurs and minority groups, saying, "Protect them from what? Who is the IOC? Are we a government?

"We're not a government, I remind us again. We are a Swiss association and we work with all of our national Olympic committees. We don't necessarily work with governments. We work with governments through our UN partnership and do things on behalf of refugees and human rights."

DeFrantz, an Ivy League-educated attorney who has described herself as a fourth-generation civil rights activist, also took offense that the upcoming Beijing Olympics have been dubbed the "Genocide Games."

"Oh gosh, that is a horrible thing to say about anything," DeFrantz said. "It is a horrible word to begin with. The fact that we know what it means is horrible as well. So, I would never say that. The words don't go together at all."

As for attaching the label to the Beijing Olympics, she added, "A lot of people say a lot of things. This is the world and time of social media where everyone can say things whether it is on their mind or not."

Only this is not a social media phenomenon.

The Genocide Games branding came as international lawyers and activists have attempted to pressure the IOC, international sports federations and corporate sponsors to address human rights abuses in China, particularly in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, which accounts for 85% of China's cotton production and 20% of the global cotton supply. China is accused of forcing Uyghurs and other minorities into hard, manual labor in the region's vast cotton fields.

Several governments previously condemned the abuse. Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department formally declared the Chinese government guilty of genocide against the country's 12 million-strong Uyghur community. Further, the State Department found more than 1 million Uyghurs were imprisoned last year. Another 2 million were given daytime-only "re-education training" intended to strip them of their culture.

Chinese officials have repeatedly denied allegations of forced labor and other human rights abuses in Xinjiang as "utterly groundless."

The look-the-other-way relationship with the authoritarian global power is not confined to the IOC. The Games' major corporate partners will plow more than $1 billion into sponsorship deals covering the 2022 Beijing Winter Games. Some, like Samsung and Panasonic, have been identified by independent watchdogs as directly or indirectly benefiting from the use of Uyghur workers.

The IOC's longest-standing partner, Coca-Cola, reportedly has a sugar supplier in China linked to forced labor in Xinjiang. Coca-Cola has also been among U.S. companies lobbying Congress to weaken the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would prohibit the importation of goods made with forced labor in China. In contrast to their China position, Coca-Cola officials condemned a new voting law in Georgia, which was at the core of Major League Baseball moving its recent All-Star Game out of Atlanta.

A host of other well-known brands also stand accused of direct or indirect ties to forced labor in Xinjiang, including Victoria's Secret, North Face, Hugo Boss, Fila and Asics.

Sports leagues, teams and professional athletes also profit from lucrative deals with multinational brands that benefit from forced labor in China.

In Tokyo, the IOC delegation, including DeFrantz, will be attired in gear supplied by the Chinese companies Anta Sports and the Hengyuanxiang Group -- both using cotton from Xinjiang.

"Well, we have ethics except when it comes to China," said Louisa Greve, director of global advocacy for the Uyghur Human Rights Project. "If the market is big enough, we'll kowtow to authoritarians and genocide doesn't matter."

"The brands are scared of China," she added. "The brands want to stay in the background, but the responsibility should be taken by the IOC. ... They knew when they took Games this issue was going to come up. They weren't blind to this."

DeFrantz prefers to focus on the grander picture. A rowing bronze medalist at the 1976 Montreal Games, she missed out four years later when the U.S. led a boycott of the Moscow Games. In her eyes, the Games are "proof that we can have a more perfect world" and leave host nations a better place, though critics argue the human rights situation in China has only worsened since the 2008 Beijing Games.

"I can tell you that having the Games in Beijing in 2008 did change things," she said. "Among the other things, the internet worked quite well during the times of the Games and not had before. My understanding is there were child labor laws that were passed after the Games. People could have jobs in other -- a lot did change. But I don't know, did an overall party direction change because of 2008? I don't know."

DeFrantz remains dismissive of athlete protests, suggesting the Mexico City podium protest of Smith and Carlos did not move the needle on racial issues in 1968.

"I have such great regard for Smith and Carlos and (Peter) Norman, who was the Australian, the silver medalist," said DeFrantz, who later became the first African American elected to the IOC. "I know what it did to Carlos and Smith, more so than Norman. How hard it was for them to get jobs later. How it changed their life path.

"What I do know also is it did not make one iota of difference in the lives of people with my skin tone in the U.S."

With 200-plus countries represented at the Games, she worries that if athletes from each nation aired their concerns, the medal podium could become a Speakers' Corner for discussion and debate.

"U.S. folks have had a chance to make a difference ..." she said. "There is so much that could have been done this year before waiting to stand on the podium and making some signal of something that few people might understand or might not. ... The self-centered nature of, 'I want to do it.' Well, fine. Then what will happen because you have done that?"