Cathy Freeman with the Australian and Aboriginal flags in 1994Cathy Freeman’s use of the Australian and Aboriginal flags at the 1994 Commonwealth Games led to a reprimand but her gesture started a national conversation. [photo: Alamy]

The clenched fists of the black power salutes on the podium of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics as the Star-Spangled Banner played; female football players from the US and Team GB taking the knee at the Tokyo Games; Hitler’s attempt to use the 1936 Berlin Olympics to reinforce his notions of Aryan superiority, ultimately derailed by Jesse Owen’s feats – some of the most iconic moments of the world’s greatest sporting spectacle have not been what happens on the track or field but in political gestures.

Now the Commonwealth Games, which styles itself as the ‘Friendly Games’, has decided that competitors will be able to use their podium as a platform to ‘advocate’ without fear of official sanctions, Sky Sports News reported this week. The Games, to be held in the British city of Birmingham from 28 July to 8 August, will allow any athlete to highlight an issue they feel strongly about, especially around racism, sexual orientation or social injustice, under new ‘Athlete Advocacy Guidelines’, the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) announced.

While the Nazis are the most egregious example of using a sports event as propaganda, more modern despotic regimes – from Mexico to South Korea to the USSR and China – have also been allowed to use the Olympics for ‘sportswashing’ purposes. However, athletes’ brave attempts to make a political statement have usually been shut down and punished by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The black American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, for example, paid a heavy price for their powerful raised-fist protest against the racism of the US: they were expelled from the Mexico City Games and received death threats back home.

So it is heartening to see the Commonwealth Games taking the lead in allowing athletes to be what Brendan Williams, chair of the CGF’s athletes commission, called ‘ambassadors of change’. He told Sky Sports News: ‘The podium at any games is a sacred space … we at the Commonwealth Games are allowing athletes to use this platform [to] advocate positively for social causes which they feel are just to them.’

Williams added: ‘It may be human rights. It may be victimisation due to race. It may be the lack of understanding of my religious belief or my sexual orientation. So it is bringing awareness in a positive and respectful way.’ The CGF stressed that athletes in Birmingham would not be able to protest against a specific person, country or organisation. Nor will defacing national flags or gestures linked to hate groups be permitted.

The Commonwealth Games has also had its contentious political statements. In the 1994 Games, held in the Canadian city of Victoria, the Indigenous Australian sprinter Cathy Freeman won the 400m and proudly waved both the Australian and Aboriginal flags on her lap of honour. But Arthur Tunstall, head of the Australian mission, publicly reprimanded her and threatened to send her home, saying: ‘She should have carried the Australian flag first up, and [we should have] not seen the Aboriginal flag at all.’ Now she is rightly celebrated by her country’s governing body, Commonwealth Games Australia, as ‘one of the greatest athletes of our time’, whose gesture ‘started a national conversation’.

Gus Kenworthy, a British freestyle skier at the recent Beijing winter Olympics, said that when he competed in the Sochi Games in 2014, he felt he had to hide the fact that he was gay, given Russia’s anti-LGBT legislation. ‘Because it’s the world stage and everyone is watching, there is an opportunity to create positive change and the IOC could help dictate that change by pushing on certain issues,’ he said. ‘Those issues are human rights issues.’

The organisers of the Birmingham Games are to be applauded for giving athletes the chance to push for change. As Jules Boykoff, both an Olympian and an historian of the Games, put it: ‘The IOC is not against politics; it is against a certain type of politics. Banning political protest is itself a blatant political act.’

Commonwealth Update became Eye on the Commonwealth in January 2022. After 38 years in print form, the column has moved from the Round Table journal to the Round Table’s website. Originally Commonwealth Notebook, the column became Commonwealth Update in 1993. The new-look Eye on the Commonwealth will seek to provide a perspective on a topical development by the journal’s Commonwealth Update editor, Oren Gruenbaum.