It has been more than five decades since African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the U.S. national anthem at the medal ceremony in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City. Their actions became infamous – even if few remember that they had respectively won the gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter running event, while Smith had even won the race with a world-record time.
The moment in time was captured by photographer John Dominis and the protest became front page news around the world. Even in the decades that follow, the demonstration has been seen as the most overtly political statement in the history of the modern Olympics.
Such protests have become increasingly common in sports.
On Saturday, after placing third in the U.S. Olympic trials, hammer thrower Gwen Berry became just as infamous after she turned away while standing on the podium during the playing of the national anthem and draped a T-shirt bearing the words, “activist athlete” over her head.
Berry’s actions were not planned. She said she didn’t know “The Star-Spangled Banner” was doing to be played during the medal ceremony, and reacted to it with an ad hoc protest.
“I feel like it was a set up. I feel like they did that on purpose, and I was pissed, to be honest,” Berry said of the anthem being played while she stood on the podium.
She added that she felt it was disrespectful that the anthem was played given her past stance on the issue. This isn’t the first time that Berry has made such a protest, and she was previously reprimanded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which even placed her on probation for a year, during which she was banned from any form of protest.
Berry has even claimed her political statements have even cost her upwards of $50,000 in sponsorships.
Social Media Amplifies The Protest
Despite an impressive career, Gwen Berry will certainly never likely to be a household name; as even in the world of track and field, hammer throwers are typically overshadowed by sprinters and long distance runners who may compete in multiple events. Yet, her actions on Saturday certainly drew media attention as well as attention on social media with pundits, politicians and everyday Americans weighing in. By Monday morning, Berry was trending with more than 28,000 posts – far more than she might have gotten had she won the trials and not protested.
Many on social media responded that it was Berry who failed to show the respect that comes with earning a spot to represent her country in next month’s Tokyo Olympic Games.
Former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (@ScottWalker) took aim at Berry, tweeting, “What is wrong with people? Growing up, everyone stood for the American flag. Didn’t matter your politics, race, sex, income, religion; everyone stood for the flag. It was one of those civic rituals that brought us together. It still should today.”
There was no surprise that many on social media actually said they would even root against Berry. Ned Ryun (@nedryun) posted, “Ignorant and stupid. I hope she gets crushed at the Olympics.”
Conservative radio personality Apryl Marie (@aprylmarie) added, “What the actual crap is this? You don’t have respect for our anthem and/or flag? Fine. But you shouldn’t represent our nation.”
Many did stand by Berry and defended her right to protest, and that included former Republican Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh (@WalshFreedom). He wrote, “America stands for freedom. Gwen Berry is free to protest, and you’re free to criticize her. And anyone calling for her to be kicked off the Olympic team doesn’t understand America. America is big enough to embrace ANY qualifying Olympic athlete, no matter their point of view.”
Highlighting our national divide, many didn’t defend Berry but rather took aim at the Trump supporters who took part in the violent January 6 breach of the Capitol Building.
Protests And Social Media
Most of the responses have largely been along partisan lines, but Berry has stirred up a debate in a way that even Tommie Smith and John Carlos weren’t able to do. While their actions were in newspapers, today Berry is discussed by those from all walks of life – so in that way her simple act of protest echoed across Twitter and other platforms.
“Social media amplifies everything,” said technology analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics. “As Warhol said in the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes. We now live in Warhol’s future. Gwen Berry, an athlete in a discipline that is obscure in the best of times, was looking to get attention and she received it thanks to social media.”
As Entner noted, her sport isn’t exactly that well known, and Berry’s time on the field in the actual games may not even be televised but her actions on Saturday have put her in the spotlight – largely overshadowing much of the news of the trials.
“Berry is another example of social media’s impact,” suggested Dr. Matthew J. Schmidt, associate professor of political science at the University of New Haven. “It’s promise was always to give individuals the power of mass media. Mainstream media covers her impromptu protest because of the social media effect. From Colin Kapearnick to Berry, we’ve watch a social movement that was created and sustained by social media.”
The question, however, is whether those actions – as well as the responses via social media – will actually result in actual social change.
“Gwen Berry’s actions, while clearly something she has the freedom to do, are part of a larger narrative – a hate of country that stems from clear past injustices,” said Harry Kazianis, senior directly of the Center for the National Interest.
“While I agree with progressives that that United States does not have a perfect record when it comes to racial discrimination – far from it – and many other deep seated problems in our society, we must never turn those past injustices into a blanket hate for America. Social media only amplifies this debate to the billionth degree – and many times just creates even more societal tensions. My fear is that social media will only distort Berry’s message, create even more divisions between progressives and conservatives, and do nothing to move the conversation forward when it comes to America’s problems in 2021.”
Finally, if there is a loser in this – that would be DeAnna Price, who actually won the event and had her moment overshadowed by protest.