By Brian Homewood
GENEVA (Reuters) – Global football union FIFPro says it will support any soccer player who defies a International Olympic Committee (IOC) ban on political protests and statements during events at the Olympic Games in Tokyo this year.
Describing the ban as hypocritical, FIFPro secretary general Jonas Baer-Hoffmann said that soccer players had played a key role in raising issues such as racism and gender equality and it would be “unacceptable” to sanction them for similar action during the Olympic soccer tournament.
The IOC said earlier this month that athletes were banned from making any political statements or protests at Olympic events or medal ceremonies “to avoid turning the Games into a political tool”.
An IOC document listed these as “any political messaging including signs or arm-bands, gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling, refusal to follow the ceremonies protocol”.
However, athletes are allowed to express views in press conferences and on social media.
“We feel very strongly that the players’ freedom of speech and the freedom to express themselves on political issues need to be protected,” Baer-Hoffmann told reporters from international news agencies on the sidelines of an International Labour Organization conference about athletes’ rights.
“We will certainly support any players who feel they want to express views and they want to be part of a social movement for change. If the IOC decides to discipline players on this occasion, we will certainly stand by them to defend them,” he added.
“Their freedom of expression overrides any other interest that may be in play here.”
Megan Rapinoe, the outspoken star of the United States women’s team who are gold medal favorites in Tokyo provided they qualify, has already criticized the ban and said that “we will not be silenced”.
Baer-Hoffmann said that many issues had come to the foreground in the first place because of players.
“It’s because of people like (Manchester City and England forward) Raheem Sterling, people like (Napoli and Senegal defender) Kalidou Koulibaly or (Brescia and Italy forward) Mario Balotelli who take matters into their own hands,” he said.
Similarly, he said, female players have been “campaigning for conditions they deserve” and speaking up for gender rights in a broader sense.
Describing them as trailblazers, Baer-Hoffmann said: “Now we have a hypocritical rule that says if you do it in our venues, we think this is a sanctionable offense. This is absolutely unacceptable.
“Players are humans first and they have the same rights to express themselves and we will defend those rights if push comes to shove.”
(Writing by Brian Homewood; editing by Nick Macfie)