Michael Pavitt

“We are standing against mistrust, we are standing against selfishness, we are standing against any form of discrimination, we are standing against isolation, we are standing against division, we are standing against fragmentation."

“We are standing for dialogue, we are standing for peace, we are standing for diversity”.

The message given at the Pan American Games could easily be attributed to fencer Race Imboden.

The American whose decision to take the knee during his country’s national anthem in protest at racism, gun control, mistreatment of immigrants and President Donald Trump has garnered worldwide attention.

Perhaps it could be attributed to hammer thrower Gwen Berry, who raised her fist at the conclusion of her medal ceremony yesterday. An act which mirrored Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium at the Mexico 1968 Olympic Games, which served as a civil rights protest against racial discrimination.

The actual source of the quotation was the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach.

During a speech about solidarity, the German admitted the organisation and sport as a whole could not ignore what was happening across the world.

Bach railed against what he called “the zeitgeist”, the growing trend in society to move in favour of “isolation, aggressivity, nationalism rather than healthy patriotism” and insisted sport had to defend its values.

Imboden and Berry actions appear to mirror Bach’s words.

At a time when the relevance of major sporting events is being questioned and potentially even put at risk, their decision to protest at the Games could be viewed through a positive lens for sporting bodies.

Race Imboden took a knee during the men's team foil medal ceremony ©Getty Images
Race Imboden took a knee during the men's team foil medal ceremony ©Getty Images

Panam Sports could suggest if they wanted that Imboden perceived the Games to have a large enough platform that his message would make its mark. The fencer reportedly took a similar stance at another fencing competition in 2017, which received little coverage.

Equally the Games, which has been perceived to have struggled to make an impact in Canada and the United States, has now received global attention.

One of the main selling points of multi-sport events is their ability to bring athletes and people together to share their cultures. Nowhere does it say the sharing of culture has to be solely about the good parts.

Another example from these Games are athletes from Venezuela, who have been able to raise awareness of the economic and political crisis in their country, which has led to around four million people leaving the nation in recent years.

“I feel very happy to give this victory to Venezuela," fencer Jesus Limardo said after competing in the men’s épée final against his brother Rubén.

“I think that life is not easy, we will always face complicated situations. Now that Venezuela is not in a good moment, we can at least give this joy to our people. We have the opportunity to give Venezuela a high”.

The platform sport has is important and it is one sporting organisations should not shy away from.

Under Panam Sports rules, Imboden and Berry, should in theory face sanctions for their actions with “no kind of demonstration” allowed at Games venues.

I would be surprised if the organisation clamped down on the duo with the Games having now concluded. Particularly given that Panam Sports gave Carl Lewis a platform earlier this week, which the former 100m world record holder used to label Donald Trump a “racist and a misogynist”

IOC President Thomas Bach said the organisation stood for peace and diversity ©Panam Sports
IOC President Thomas Bach said the organisation stood for peace and diversity ©Panam Sports

United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee are in a trickier spot, where a divided public could easily slam the beleaguered body should they opt for or against strong action.

The IOC though will have watched events from afar and will no doubt have begun to think towards Tokyo 2020.

The Pan American Games have been viewed as a development step for athletes on the path to the Olympics. You suspect the IOC will hope the same cannot be said for podium protests.

Tokyo 2020 does seem a major opportunity should an American athlete want to take it, with the Games taking place during the final throws of the US Presidential election campaign.

Under Bach’s leadership the IOC has increasingly become a political enterprise, but largely when it has suited the organisation.

While their influence might be overstated, last year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang was a milestone in what remains a challenging Korean peace process.

One of the central images of the Games was the North and South Korean athletes marching together during the Opening Ceremony, while the joint Korean team competed in the women's ice hockey tournament.

The IOC were on to a winner regardless, as any progress would have been regarded as a success.

Here it is more complicated for the IOC.

Ethiopian Olympic medallist Feyisa Lilesa went unpunished by the IOC for a political gesture at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images
Ethiopian Olympic medallist Feyisa Lilesa went unpunished by the IOC for a political gesture at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images

The landscape is far more divided and cut across political lines. You do not need to scroll too far through comments on Imboden’s Twitter post to see that.

It would be fascinating to see how the organisation would react if the podium protests from the Pan American Games reappear next year in Japan’s capital city.

The IOC is smart enough to avoid repeating the mistakes of their former President Avery Brundage, whose opposition to Smith and Carlos’ protest at Mexico 1968 ultimately saw the athletes expelled from the Games.

The organisation has previous for letting political gestures pass without sanction. The most recent example is Ethiopian marathon runner and Olympic silver medallist Feyisa Lilesa.

Lilesa crossed his arms in a gesture used to oppose the Ethiopian Government’s police crackdowns on protests when he crossed the line at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Should American athletes heed Imboden’s words to “use your platforms for empowerment and change” at Tokyo 2020, the IOC could be faced with a decision.

Bach may have to prove his words are not just words.