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Olympian Raven Saunders’ Powerful Podium Demonstration

Raven “Hulk” Saunders, the lesbian shot putter for team USA, spoke up for the downtrodden without words when she won silver at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Raven lifted her arms above her head and formed an “X” across her wrists, explaining it symbolized “the intersection where all people who are oppressed meet.”

Raven Saunders demonstrating next to gold medalist Lijao Gong, via Raven’s Instagram.

Olympic demonstration

The “X” Raven made above her head wasn’t a spontaneous, last minute decision. Raven explained, “American athletes had been planning their protest in defiance of International Olympic Committee regulations for several weeks,” according to the NY Times. “I wanted to be respectful of the national anthem being played,” Raven said. 

The I.O.C prohibits demonstrations on the podium or during competition, which is a rule that was made just before Tokyo was intended to go ahead in 2020. Yes, even nonviolent “X”s above our heads. According to I.O.C President Thomas Bach, the Olympics “are not and must never be a platform to advance political or other divisive ends.” Protesting has to be when it’s convenient for power-holders, apparently. Schedule the protest for 3am in the desert, I guess. Bring no camera crew. Don’t use social media. That would be… too powerful.

Thomas Bach believes being politically neutral is of utmost importance at the Olympic Games, despite the world’s penchant for political issues, and the Olympic stage being a perfect platform to expose and express them — even silently — on the podium. He went on, “Our political neutrality is undermined whenever organizations or individuals attempt to use the Olympic Games as a stage for their own agendas, as legitimate as they may be.” If wanting an end to oppression is an “agenda” then shouldn’t everybody be an activist?

Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter already prohibited Olympic athletes from protesting, but it didn’t specify exactly what counts as “protest.” Conveniently following the rise in athletes using various symbols to signify their disapproval of racial injustice, particularly since the Black Lives Matter movement took off, the new guidelines “specify examples, including displaying political messaging in signs or armbands, kneeling, disrupting medal ceremonies or making political hand gestures.” 

The Olympic Charter then decided to lift the ban, allowing athletes to “express their views” before and after competing, “just not during events and victory ceremonies, or at the Olympic Village,” according to the BBC. The Great Britain women’s football team announced they’d be taking the knee before every match in Tokyo.

The Olympics has a history of brave people silently protesting. In 1906, Irish track and field athlete Peter O’Connor carried out the first. New rules meant only athletes nominated by an Olympic Committee were allowed to compete, so the British Olympic Council claimed O’Connor “as their own.” O’Connor was outraged after finding out he’d be competing for Great Britain. “The battle for Irish independence was in full swing and demands for constitutional change to allow for self-governance were growing…In protest, O’Connor scaled a 20 foot flagpole in the stadium, waving a green flag with the words “Erin Go Bragh” (Ireland forever) while his co-athlete Con Leahy distracted Greek authorities.”

In 1968, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in a Black Power salute. “When American runners John Carlos and Tommie Smith stood on the medal podium to receive their respective bronze and gold medals at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, they famously raised their fists in a Black Power salute when the American national anthem began playing. Their Australian co-medalist Peter Norman stood in solidarity with them, wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge during the ceremony.”

Will Raven be punished? The I.O.C said, after Raven’s demonstration on Sunday night, “An athlete’s national Olympic committee is required to issue any required punishment.” However, “U.S. officials have said they will not punish any athlete for exercising the right to free speech that does not express hatred.”

Intersectionality

Let’s get this straight: the “X” does not express hatred. It references the concept of intersectionality, which Kimberlé Crenshaw coined over 30 years ago. “Drawing on black feminist and critical legal theory, Kimberlé Crenshaw developed the concept of intersectionality, a term she coined to speak to the multiple social forces, social identities, and ideological instruments through which power and disadvantage are expressed and legitimized.”

Intersectionality is about how various axes of oppression can overlap, complicating and magnifying their relative powerlessness within society’s systemic structure. Moving through life as a straight, white, rich man will come with an entirely different experience of power than for a lesbian, Black, poor woman.

White women and black women also have a different experience with misogyny, for example. The misogyny inflicted upon black women is inherently linked to racism. Hence the concept of Misogynoir, a term coined by Moya Bailey in 2008, meaning “the ways anti-black and misogynistic representation shape broader ideas about Black women, particularly in visual culture and digital spaces.”

Raven Saunders made it clear the athletes were referencing intersectional oppression. “Saunders said Monday the gesture she made and the X symbol that other athletes have displayed represented solidarity with the many comminutes that she is a part of — people who are Black, L.G.B.T.Q. and those who have struggled with mental health as she has,” according to the NY Times.

In memory of Clarissa Saunders

After such a euphoric high, Raven was delivered a debilitating blow while still in Tokyo: her mother, Clarissa Saunders, had passed away in Orlando, Florida, where she was attending Olympic watch parties with such pride for her daughter. 

Raven’s coach, Herbert Johnson, wrote on Facebook:

ACADEMY FAMILY and FRIENDS we have very sad news to deliver.

The mother of Raven Saunders, Mrs.Clarissa Saunders has died.

Mrs. Saunders was in Florida with Tanzy (Raven’s sister) where the  USATF brought them for Olympic Family watch parties. They where also celebrating with family while there.

Please pray for and give Your support and LOVE to Raven and Tanzy.

Raven sends her Love to Everyone and is staying strong.”

The mother was full of joy when she was being interviewed straight after her brave daughter won silver and made a powerful statement on the podium, only days before:

“Hoping off social media for a while to take care of my mental and my family. My mama was a great woman and will forever live through me. My number one guardian angel. I will always and forever love you,” Raven wrote on twitter. 

The USA Track and Field and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee expressed its condolences

“Her mother leaves behind an incredible legacy in her daughter for who we are all so proud and grateful to all our teammate,” spokesperson Susan Hazzard said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the entire Saunders family during his difficult time.”

The IOC investigation into her protest gesture has been suspended in light of her mother’s death.

AJ Kelly

Contact AJ at [email protected] or view the rest of her work on aj-kelly.tumblr.com

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