American swimmer takes a knee. Could athlete protests impact upcoming Winter Olympics?

American swimmer Anthony Ervin joined the growing number of athletes who kneeled during the national anthem.

The 36-year-old swimmer took a knee on Sunday after he anchored Team USA’s mixed 200-meter medley relay race in Brazil.

Afterward, he tweeted: “My point is to save lives, and understand the imbalance. We all have our area. I’m a swimmer.”

Swim Swam, a swimming news organization, noted that Ervin is the son of Jack Ervin, an American black Vietnam veteran who opted to join the Marines instead going to jail after he was wrongly implicated in an act of vandalism. His mother, Sherry, is of Jewish heritage and white.

In 2000, the younger Ervin became the first black American swimmer to win Olympic swimming gold with the 50-meter freestyle in Sydney. Sixteen years later in Rio, he became the oldest swimmer in history to win an Olympic gold medal at the age of 35.

The “take a knee” movement – protesting police brutality and other issues – began when Colin Kaepernick first sat for the anthem during the NFL preseason in early August 2016. It has since grown to a sizable number of NFL and WNBA players and even spread abroad when a German professional soccer team took a knee during pregame ceremonies in solidarity on Sunday.

FILE - In this Oct. 2, 2016, file photo, from left, San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, center, and safety Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif. What started as a protest against police brutality has mushroomed a year later into a divisive debate over the future of Kaepernick who refused to stand for the national anthem and now faces what his fans see as blackballing for speaking out in a country roiled by racial strife. The once-rising star and Super Bowl quarterback has been unemployed since March, when he opted out of his contract and became a free agent who could sign with any team. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers (center), began to kneel during the national anthem at preseason games in August 2016. He was protesting police brutality.  (AP Photo)


It now begs the question: Will the protests to the national anthem spread to the upcoming Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, which are set to begin in February?

The Olympic charter prohibits athletes from making political demonstrations inside venues, but it has not stopped them before.

Probably the most famous demonstration came at the 1986 Mexico City Games when U.S. track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a Black Power salute while on the medal stand. It was a silent but attention-grabbing way of protesting the discrimination and poor living condition of blacks in the U.S.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter run at the 1968 Olympic Games, engage in a victory stand protest against unfair treatment of blacks in the United States. With heads lowered and black-gloved fists raised in the black power salute, they refuse to recognize the American flag and national anthem. Australian Peter Norman is the silver medalist.

Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists in the black power salute in protest during the national anthem at the 1968 Mexico Games.  (This content is subject to copyright.)

“We planted the seeds back then, and what you see today is the fruit of our labors,” Carlos told Fox News ahead of the Rio games last summer. “In entertainment, in sports, you see people demanding more access and better treatment.”


The fallout was swift for Smith, Carlos and Australian sprinter Peter Norman, who suggested they wear the gloves. The two Americans were immediately taken off the U.S. team, their Mexican visas were revoked and they were sent home to the U.S. Norman was reprimanded and held off future Olympic teams by the Australian committee.

The international sporting event has long been a way for individual athletes and even entire countries to make major political and social statements.

In 1960 athletes from Taiwan – protesting being asked by the International Olympic Committee to no longer march under the name “The Republic of China” at the 1960 Rome Olympics – carried a sign reading, “Under Protest,” during the opening ceremony. The then-IOC President Avery Brundage had to be talked out of banning the Taiwanese delegation from participating in the games.

In 1908, Irish athletes boycotted the London games because of Britain’s refusal to grant Irish independence.

In 1980, 62 countries led by the United States boycotted the Moscow summer Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas 1979. President Jimmy Carter made the decision for the athletes and it would be one of the least popular decisions he ever made during his presidency.

2016 Rio Olympics - Athletics - Final - Men's Marathon - Sambodromo - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 21/08/2016. Feyisa Lilesa (ETH) of Ethiopia celebrates.   REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha    FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.   - RIOEC8L17K7AH

Marathoner Feyisa Lilesa of Ethiopia has been exiled after he crossed his arms over his head at the finish line in protest of his country's treatment of his ethnic group at the 2016 Rio Games.  (REUTERS)

In response, the Soviet Union and other Warsaw pact countries boycotted the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Last summer, at the Rio Games, the Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms over his head at the finish line to protest the country's treatment of his ethnic group, the Oromo people. He has been in exile since.


It’s unclear if athletes will use the upcoming winter Olympics to make a political statement. But some are already saying they are mulling it over.

“I am an African-American woman and my family is all African American,” Kehri Jones, a U.S. Olympic bobsled hopeful told the New York Times last month. “I worry about my family and my siblings and my father going out and ending up in some of these awful situations.”

But she said she’s torn over the matter.


Lucia I. Suarez Sang is a Reporter for

Follow her on Twitter @luciasuarezsang