Tokyo Games 100 days to go: Spitz says Olympics must not prevent 'rightful opportunity to speak out'

By Sports Desk April 14, 2021

Olympics great Mark Spitz believes politically active athletes are unlikely to heed demands for them not to protest during Tokyo 2020.

United States swimming superstar Spitz won seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Games to establish himself as an all-time legend of the pool.

He recalled the Black Power salute from American track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico Games four years earlier as a prime example of Olympians using their platform to take a powerful stance in front of the watching world.

On the podium in Mexico City, after Smith won gold in the 200 metres and Carlos took bronze, the American sprinters each stood with a black-gloved hand raised and head bowed, an immortal protest against racism in the United States.

Spitz acknowledged the determined efforts of current sporting superstars such as LeBron James and Lewis Hamilton to draw attention to similar matters of racial prejudice.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach said last year that the Olympics "are not and must never be a platform to advance political or any other divisive ends".

Bach added: "Our political neutrality is undermined whenever organisations or individuals attempt to use the Olympic Games as a stage for their own agendas, as legitimate as they may be."

In an interview with Stats Perform, Spitz said of the IOC's intentions: "I know they have had some campaigns at a political level not to make it a platform for people to speak out against things that are obviously a concern to them, and they use when they stand on the podium and win a medal to voice their opinion.

"I am on the fence in how I feel about it. An example was Tommie Smith and John Carlos who held their hands up in the 1968 Olympic Games in track and field. And that still resonates to this day.

"And the issues they spoke loud and clear about are still happening here in America and worldwide. So I don't think people's rightful opportunity to speak out will be eradicated."

Speaking courtesy of Laureus, Spitz added: "I think there's a proper place and a proper time and in most people's opinion the proper place and time are when the most people in the world are listening to you.

"And certainly that provokes those sort of things to happen at the Olympics, or other events for that matter."

Formula One champion Hamilton and NBA superstar James have used their global fame as a means to call for equality in society and sport.

Spitz stressed he remained "down the middle of the line" on political protests in sport, but he added: "I think morally if they feel they need to speak out then they should. And there's a way to do that in a polite and politically correct and accurate way. I think those two gentlemen [Hamilton and James] have done so."

Spitz, now 71, no longer holds the record for the most gold medals in a single Games after fellow swimming great Michael Phelps won eight at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

He predicted organisers of the delayed Tokyo Olympics - set back a year by the COVID-19 pandemic - will go the extra mile to deliver a standout entertainment experience for the worldwide audience.

International spectators have been banned from travelling to watch the Games, in an effort to control the spread of the virus.

"I suspect and hope they will go off without a hitch, but in keeping with tradition I'm not sure how they'll do an opening ceremony with all those people, or an opening ceremony show," Spitz said.

"It is a big revenue generator for the television networks to have those part of the festivities. It's a shame if it's not done as we're accustomed to seeing, but I think it will be modified and we'll be happy with what the presentation will be I hope."

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