The disruptive games: The legacy of 1968 and the new Olympic order

| July 29, 2021

Earlier this year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) claimed that Tokyo 2020 would be the ‘first ever gender-balanced Olympic Games in history’. Waiving a concept of gender-equality based on numbers of women’s athletes taking part in the Games, the IOC was signaling its disposition to embrace a narrow understanding of diversity that fits in their neoliberal outline.

The IOC gender concepts have been criticized by experts, who claimed that more than numbers, what the Olympic Movement needs is a broad feminist approach to support gender diverse people and to question its very key neoliberal and old-school tenets.

Nevertheless, even before its Opening Ceremony, athletes have been leading a revolutionary political and cultural agenda that goes far beyond what the IOC aimed and expected for the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Let the Games begin!

As the Games begun, what spectators around the world are witnessing across all competition venues is a festival of gender and religious diversity; combined with social and political protests, these demonstrations are not part of the Olympic program; they will not be announced in the broadcasters’ schedules, but are being documented across all media platforms.

As if they were buying the ‘broad feminist approach’ pointed out by critical analysts, athletes from all origins are creating a greater political, cultural and social movement in Tokyo. A movement that, despite the IOC claims of the ‘non-political nature’ of the Games; in spite of its vehement opposition and prohibition of any political manifestation, is shaking the ideological basis of the ‘largest event on Earth’.

Orixas against religious intolerance

The early days of the Games have already displayed this diversity and the tensions that it represents to the Olympic ideals.

In the opening round of the Olympics football competition, Paulinho, a forward for the Olympic Brazilian Team, celebrated his goal against Germany by mimicking an archery pose. By acting an arrow release towards the empty stands, he showed his devotion to Oxossi, a primordial Divinity (or Orixa) of Candomble, an Afro-Brazilian religion originated from the Yoruba people who were enslaved in Brazil during three centuries of Portuguese colonization.

Despite their popularity in South America and their undoubtedly connections to peace and social justice messages, these religions suffer from historically discrimination that usually comes under the form of violence, with their places of worship frequently ransacked  and their leaders physically abused.

Within a football realm that has been dominated by Christian players such as Messi and Lewandowski, where spectators are familiar with Catholic and Pentecostal signs of religious devotion, the Bayer Leverkusen’s player act is a unique and welcomed act of fresh air; it’s a plea for religious tolerance and plurality that is hardly seen on football and Olympic fields.

Aboriginal flag and political boldness

At the Women’s football Olympic tournament’s first round, new messages for understanding and inclusion were on display. The Matildas, as the Australia’s women’s team is known, stood for a team photo with the Aboriginal flag proudly held up.

What is a gesture against racism that shows the team taking a stand for Indigenous Australia, including their own Indigenous players, it is also a libertarian political message that immediately brings controversies, as with right-wing representatives trying to skew their message, dismissing their demonstration as a ‘divisive sign’.

The Matilda’s demo reminds the world of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when Indigenous sprinter Cathy Freeman, torch bearer and 400 meters’ gold medalist, celebrated her win with the Aboriginal and the Australian flags around her neck, in front of a packed Olympic stadium.

Freeman did that not only in spite of her personal history of abuse for displaying her Aboriginal identity; she embraced the flag despite of the warnings that this would be a breach of IOC rules that did not allow political demonstrations by athletes. On that day, she gained her country’s and the world’s heart and minds to the Aboriginal cause

Body diversity: breaking the gender binary

It is official. The Tokyo Games will definitely break the gender binary, with more than 160 openly LGBTQ athletes taking part in the competitions. These are the most out-of-the-closet Games ever

It has been a long journey for civil rights which will not end up here. The LGBTQ+ fight to be accepted and feel belonging within sports contexts is ongoing, and evidence that any type of right will never be a given, but a result of social struggle built from the ground.

It also challenges the narrow vision that only sees gender within a men vs women equation, and that equates gender-equality to men and women parity on executive boards; moreover, it dares old-fashion gender concepts of hegemonic masculinity; homosexual sports people and transgender and no-binary athletes are showing to the world that the human body’s experience does not fit in a limited and stereotyped gendered box; they are inspiring the whole spectrum of genders to feel empowered and in control of their bodies and lives.

On a parallel but related note: recently, a few German gymnasts opted to wear full-body unitards, in a statement against the ongoing sexualization of women’s bodies in the sport.  This adds to the evidence that athletes want and will control their bodies from now onwards.

The kneeling controversy

It looked like a beautiful tactical display, with all movements coordinated for the success of the play. However, this time, instead of opposing each other, the two teams were on the same side; as the referee blew the whistle, the Chilean and the Great Britain Women’s football teams ‘took the knee’ simultaneously on the field.

The kneeling protest, that was ignited in 2016 by American football player Collin Kaepernick, has lately spread around the world, and since then a range of athletes have been taking the knee to protest against racism and violence towards black people.

However, in January 2020, thus before the COVID-19  pandemic and the postponement of the Tokyo Games, the already famous political gesture was deemed to be forbidden by the IOC in the 2020  Olympics.

Nonetheless, as the IOC guidelines could not stop the athletes to knelt on the field in support of antiracism causes, it appears that images of kneeling athletes have been initially banned from the IOC’s social media channels; as athletes insisted in making history on their knees, the banned was lifted and the whole world, including the millions who follow the official Olympic media channels, can now see this symbolic but powerful gesture in the world’s struggle against persisting racism in the sports arena and in the broader society.

The 1968 legacy for the Disruptive Games

Curiously, one of the most disseminated and iconic Olympic images of all times is one of a political demonstration. The 1968 podium protest by United States 200-meters sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who were supported by fellow Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, made history and has even been lately commodified by the IOC itself.


The author with John Carlos, bronze medal winner in the 200 metres at the 1968 Olympic Games.

Back to their countries, the three medalists suffered different levels of opprobrium and discrimination that marked their lives forever; they all faced enormous hardship to make their living, and were ostracized from the Olympic Movement.

Nevertheless, the IOC’S response to their podium demonstration was evidence of the conservative character of the Olympic movement: in 1974, the Committee introduced the notorious rule 50, which states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

Since then, as showed by the examples above, athletes’ activism has raised and become more prominent in different sporting contexts. The IOC has lately ‘relaxed’ its ruling, broadening the limits within which competitors can raise their voices.


A dedication to the author from John Carlos, co-author of “The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World“, published in 2011 by Haymarket Books.

Recently, a relevant letter signed by ‘‘academic experts, educators and advocates on the intersection of sport, human rights, and racial/social justice in global society’’ was addressed to the IOC, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and to the IOC’s and IPC’s Athletes Commissions to push for an even broader relaxation of this prohibitive rule.

Social activism could not stop the Tokyo Pandemic Games. Despite an extensive opposition among business leaders and the Japanese population, the IOC pushed for the Games to go ahead amid a terrible pandemic.

Nevertheless, as the competitions unfold and the athletes show their increasing political and social consciousness and courage, the actual legacy of the games will once again escape from the panoptic eye of the IOC: COVID-19 and political activism have already engraved Tokyo as the #DisruptiveGames.

The 1968 Olympic political legacy is strong and alive. Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman are still making history.