Last summer, at the Rio Games, the Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms over his head at the finish line to protest Ethiopia’s treatment of his ethnic group, the Oromo people. He has been in exile since.
“At the Olympic Games themselves, there is a prohibition on all forms of demonstration, political or otherwise,” said Scott Blackmun, chief executive of the United States Olympic Committee, referring to a rule in the Olympic Charter. “We have a little bit different state of play when it comes to the Olympic Games. But we certainly recognize the importance of athletes being able to express themselves.”
The American figure skater Adam Rippon is among the more outspoken Olympic hopefuls in terms of politics, commonly sharing his views on Instagram and Twitter. Over the weekend, after President Trump said Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors were no longer invited to the White House, Rippon retweeted a statement from the Warriors, calling the team “champions on and off the court.”
“As athletes, we have a very unique opportunity to speak up about things that we believe in and to be that voice for people who are not being heard,” Rippon said.
When asked if he would make some kind of statement at the Olympics if he makes the podium, he hesitated. “I hope by the time the Olympics comes around the atmosphere and tensions of the political climate are different,” he said, adding that he would support teammates should they express their views.
Elana Meyers Taylor, a two-time Olympic bobsledder, said athletes were pushing for social change more than ever before. “I think the hardest thing is that all of us would love to just stick to sport — but if you want us to be role models to kids then you need to stand for more than just sports.”
“At the end of the day,” she added, “the only time we hear the national anthem is when we win a gold medal. So we have to get to the Olympics, then win a gold medal and then see what kind of social impact we can have there.”
While some athletes left open the possibility of making a political statement at the Winter Games, others said it was out of the question.
“You won’t see me taking a knee at the national anthem, especially at an event like the Olympics,” said Troy Terry, a hockey player hoping to make the United States team for Pyeongchang.