Only five months ago the Olympic body strengthened its ban on political statements by specifying that gestures such as taking a knee or raising a fist on a medal podium remain prohibited.
But the IOC’s public stance eased slightly on Wednesday when its president Thomas Bach said the in-house athlete committee would “explore different ways” opinions could be expressed during the games — while still “respecting the Olympic spirit.”
“The Olympic aims are a very powerful global demonstration against racism and for inclusivity,” Bach said at a news conference after an executive board meeting.
Still, he sought to separate “support for the principles enshrined in the Olympic Charter and potentially divisive demonstrations.”
The current rule 50 of the charter tries to uphold political neutrality for the Olympics but allows athletes to express opinions in interviews after their events.
However, gestures made on the field of play or at medal ceremonies were classed in January as “divisive disruption.”
According to the current stance, athletes copying the iconic raised fist salutes by American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics could still be sent home from the Olympics. They also would face disciplinary action by their national Olympic team, their sport’s governing body, and the IOC.
It was unclear if the new talks could lead to those kinds of gestures being tolerated in the future. Bach twice referred to “dignified” gestures, but wouldn’t specify what he wants to see from the upcoming talks.
“I will not preempt in any way these consultations,” Bach said.
No details or timescale were given for the process, which Bach said would be led by the athletes panel that includes IOC members elected by their peers, and others who are appointed.
The panel led by Kirsty Coventry, an Olympic gold medallist swimmer from Zimbabwe, has typically followed the views of the Bach-chaired IOC board of which she is a member.
A push by activist athletes worldwide for the IOC to relax an Olympic charter rule limiting their commercial opportunities during the games has broadly been resisted by Coventry’s group.
“I really think the athletes’ commission is taking the pulse of the opinions of the athletes and is reflecting very well the opinion of the majority of the athletes,” Bach said.