The International Olympic Committee (IOC) on Tuesday asked China to explain why two of its gold medalist athletes wore badges featuring the likeness of Mao Zedong, the murderous tyrant who established the Communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.
The IOC forbids Olympic athletes from displaying political slogans or images.
Bicyclists Bao Shanju and Zhong Tianshi brought the Mao pins to the medal presentation ceremony on Monday after winning gold medals for the women’s cycling team sprint. Chinese state media applauded the gesture as an inspiring demonstration of loyalty to the Communist Party regime.
“We contacted the Chinese Olympic Committee and asked them for a report on the situation. We are looking into the matter,” an IOC spokesman said Tuesday.
Rule 50 in the IOC charter states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
The rule has been “tweaked” under political pressure several times over the past four decades, including a change made this year that permits some political demonstrations, but only “prior to the start of competitions.” The amended Rule 50 still forbids political gestures on the medals podium.
The Associated Press speculated the Chinese athletes might have worn their Mao pins in response to American shot-put silver medalist Raven Saunders raising her arms in a social justice “X” gesture while standing beside Chinese gold medalist Gong Lijiao.
The IOC is investigating Saunders’ conduct as a potential violation of Rule 50. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee argued Saunders did not break the rules because she made a “peaceful expression” of support for “racial and social justice” that was “respectful of her competitors.”
China will inevitably make precisely the same argument on behalf of its athletes if Saunders’ defiance of the rules is permitted, especially since Saunders claimed more social justice demonstrations from American athletes will be forthcoming. The Chinese are unlikely to allow U.S. athletes to have a unique exemption from Rule 50 for their preferred political causes.
Saunders said in an interview on Monday that her political gesture was planned in advance, and she deliberately waited until after the Chinese Communist anthem was played to salute gold medalist Gong before she made her move.
“I wanted to be respectful of the national anthem being played,” she said.