By: Clara Guthrie
On Saturday June 26, hammer thrower Gwen Berry turned her back on the American flag while the national anthem played as she stood on the podium during the track and field Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, saying she felt “set-up” by the timing of the song. Berry had just placed third in her respective event, meaning she had secured her spot at the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The opening ceremony will take place on July 23, and the rest of the Olympics schedule can be found HERE.
According to the Associated Press, the national anthem had played once every night of the track and field qualifying events, meaning “The Star-Spangled Banner” had played consecutively for eight nights before Berry stepped onto the podium. USA Track and Field spokeswoman Susan Hazzard said in a statement, “We didn’t wait until the athletes were on the podium for the Hammer Throw awards, the national anthem is played every day according to a previously published schedule.”
Berry, however, claimed that she was told the national anthem would play before the athletes walked back onto the field to receive their medals. “They said they were going to play it before we walked out, then they played it when we were out there,” Berry said. “But I don’t really want to talk about the anthem because that’s not important. The anthem doesn’t speak for me. It never has.”
Berry’s behavior on the podium reflected her immediate surprise and discomfort when the anthem began to play. The Associated Press described the moment:
“While the music played, Berry placed her left hand on her hip and shuffled her feet. She took a quarter turn, so she was facing the stands, not the flag. Toward the end, she plucked up her black T-shirt with the words ‘Activist Athlete’ emblazoned on the front, and draped it over her head.”
Berry is no stranger to merging activism with top-tier athletics. At the 2019 Pan-American Games held in Peru, Berry raised her fist in protest as the national anthem played; she was, again, on the podium, this time receiving a gold medal. The backlash Berry faced for this action was swift and aggressive. According to ESPN, one Twitter user simply said, “Love our country or move out!!”
In defense of her silent and yet impactful protest at the 2019 Pan-American Games was her father, Michael Berry. He said, “For her to do that on the podium is more American than anything, if you ask me. Because that’s what our country is founded on: freedom of expression, freedom of speech.” It is important to note that Michael Berry is an Iraq War veteran—a member of a group that is often brought up as one that is disrespected by any form of protest during the playing of the national anthem.
The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee however, clearly disagreed with Berry’s father’s statement, instead sentencing Berry to a one-year probation for breaking the Olympic code of conduct. At the time, this set of rules forbade any form of demonstration while at Olympic-affiliated venues. According to NBC News, the committee has since apologized to Berry for this punishment. Race Imboden, an American fencer, took a knee while on the podium at his respective medal ceremony at the same Pan-American Games and was also put on probation for one year. While these sorts of demonstrations are still illegal according to the International Olympic Committee, the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee has since changed their rules to allow for some kinds of political demonstrations.
But after her most recent act of protest at the Olympic trials on Saturday, Berry is only renewed in her commitment to social justice, specifically in dismantling systemic racism. In the aforementioned conversation with the Associated Press, Berry said, “My purpose and my mission is bigger than sports. I’m here to represent those […] who died due to systemic racism. That’s the important part. That’s why I’m going. That’s why I’m here today.”
In the wake of Berry’s actions, #gwenberry was trending on Twitter, triggering a storm of passionate comments voicing both praise and pride, as well as disappointment and downright hatred—with many users on the latter side calling for her outright removal from the Olympic team. Republican politician Tom Basile took to Twitter to say, “She’s a disgrace and should not be allowed to represent this country. Period.” Another user added, “When your [sic] supposed to rep your country in the Olympics and turn your back on the flag, you should be stripped of that chance at the Olympics. […] Rooting against her in Tokyo.”
The hashtag has also been flooded with support of Berry’s protest. One user said, “Storming the Capitol and enslaving Americans are NOT acts of patriotism but you don’t want to talk about that. Protesting is patriotic.” Columnist Carron J. Phillips agreed, saying, “She’s a patriot. And if you’re mad at a 2-time Olympian but not the terrorists who stormed the Capitol, you’re part of the problem.”
Other Twitter users astutely observed that Gwen Berry is among many famous and celebrated athletes who have used their high-publicity roles to engage in and push forward different social movements, specifically dismantling systemic racism in America. Former-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick became the center of a heated debate in 2016 when he began kneeling during the national anthem before his games to send a message about police brutality and discrimination against Black Americans. And at the 1968 Mexico City summer Olympic games, track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos made waves when they both raised a fist in the black power salute during the national anthem as they received gold and bronze medals, respectively.
All four of these athletes—Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Colin Kaepernick and now, Gwen Berry—are paragons of protest and serve as resonant reminders that protest is inherently meant to make us uncomfortable and catalyze change. Berry may be a newer member of this long-standing tradition of Black athletes pushing for political change, but she most certainly will not be the last.