Protests take center stage at the Pan America Games
In this Friday, Aug. 9, 2019 photo, released by Lima 2019 News Services, Race Imboden of the United States takes a knee, as teammates Mick Itkin and Gerek Meinhardt stand on the podium after winning the gold medal in team's foil, at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. "Racism, gun control, mistreatment of immigrants, and a president who spreads hate are at the top of a long list" of America's problems, Imboden said in a tweet sent after his medals ceremony. "I chose to sacrifice my moment today at the top of the podium to call attention to issues that I believe need to be addressed. | Jose Sotomayor/Lima 2019 News Services via AP

Over the weekend, while American’s at home turned their attention to the news of Jeffery Epstein’s suicide, two American athletes abroad used their medal-winning ceremonies at the Pan American Games to call attention to the social issues, and grave injustices flying out of control in the U.S.

During the medal ceremonies at the multi-sport event in Lima, Peru, hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised a defiant fist, while fencer Race Imboden took a knee.

“This week I am honored to represent Team USA at the Pan Am Games, taking home gold and bronze,” tweeted Imboden after the ceremony. “My pride, however, has been cut short by the multiple shortcomings of the country I hold so dear to my heart.

“Racism, gun control, mistreatment of immigrants, and a president who spreads hate are at the top of a long list…I encourage others to please use your platforms for empowerment and change.

Berry’s fist was raised as the American national anthem played to honor her win, a moment first observed during the 1968 games in Mexico City, when sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the medals ceremony for the 200-meter dash. And now, 50 years later, those issues remain unchanged.

Berry called out all injustice in America “and a president who’s making it worse.”

“It’s too important to not say anything,” said Berry to USA Today. “Something has to be said. If nothing is said, nothing will be done, and nothing will be fixed, and nothing will be changed.

Imboden’s kneeling is also a timely reminder of the “take a knee” movement started by former-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick who began kneeling during the national anthem before San Francisco 49ers games in 2016 to protest racism and police brutality.

Since then, Kaepernick has been off the field and recently settled his grievance against the league.

The actions by Berry and Imboden will test the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committees’ determination to enforce rules restricting political demonstrations. Athletes representing the U.S. have faced intense scrutiny since 2016, about the types of demonstrations they might engage in if they land on the bronze, silver, or gold medal podium.

Both could represent the U.S. in less than a year at the Tokyo Olympics, and their demonstrations have divided Olympic athletes’ opinions.

Hammer thrower Gwen Berry (center) raised her fist on the awards podium on Friday. She called out injustice in America “and a president who’s making it worse.” | AP

U.S. softball gold medalist Monica Abbott is one Olympian who feels the podium is no place for a protest.

“One thing that makes the U.S. great is that we have this ability to have freedom in a lot of different things, it is a founding principle in our country — freedom of speech, freedom of religion,” Abbott said during the Games closing press conference.

“But as an athlete, it is our opportunity to put differences aside whether they’re political, they’re athletic, to whether it is the way we look to put those aside to celebrate something that can bring the world together.

“That is what sport is about. That is what I think the Olympic and Pan American vision is about, bringing people together.”

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee said in a statement Sunday its leadership is considering possible consequences for Berry and Imboben’s actions. Berry is on the U.S. team heading to the track and field world championships next month.

“Every athlete competing at the 2019 Pan American Games commits to terms of eligibility, including to refrain from demonstrations that are political in nature,” read the statement. “In these cases, the athletes didn’t adhere to the commitment they made to the organizing committee and the USOPC. We respect their rights to express their viewpoints, but we are disappointed that they chose not to honor their commitment.”


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.