The ongoing world championship has been at the centre of controversy after swimmers took a stand against China’s Sun Yang by snubbing him on the podium and calling his contentious doping ban out.
First Mark Horton and then Duncan Scott refused to stand with the gold medallist on the podium. Briton Scott, who tied with Russian Martin Malyutin for the bronze, subsequently refused to shake Sun’s hand on the 200m podium – just as Australian Horton did after losing to the Chinese giant in the weekend’s 400m final.
Sun, now an 11-time world champion, is competing under a drugs cloud in South Korea after a leaked FINA doping panel report claimed he smashed vials of blood with a hammer after being visited by testers last September.
FINA cleared him to swim this week, but the World Anti-Doping Agency appealed the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, who will hold a hearing in September.
The second time the podium snub occurred, the Chinese swimmer snapped and things got ugly. The triple Olympic champion shook his fist at Scott before getting in his face, waving his finger at the Briton and barking: “You’re a loser – I win!”
Eventually, Swimming’s governing body warned Sun, Scott and Horton for bringing the sport into disrepute.
The issue has left many conflicted. While Sun’s case still lies with the CAS, he has been allowed to compete and is winning gold medals. But the waves of protest – both on the podium and in the backing of protesters by fellow swimmers – show that not many of his peers see him as a clean athlete.
The podium protest in sport has long been connected to social activism, the most iconic being the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics.
Athletes using a major international competition to stage a protest is not uncommon and the gestures and comments on the podium or during the national anthem usually get the issue the spotlight it needs.
America, in particular, has seen several such cases of athletes taking a stand, from the international to the university level. Protests during the national anthem to protest atrocities against minorities are frequent and have a long history.
Closer home, boxer L Sarita Devi had refused to accept her Asian Games 2014 bronze, leaving the medal on the podium.
Distraught after losing her controversial semi-final bout to home favourite Jina Park, who ended up as the silver-medallist, she refused to accept the bronze medal. She had already lost an appeal against the judges’ decision and came on to the podium.
Crying bitterly on the podium, Sarita refused to wear the medal and then handed it over to Park after. The former Asian and world champion then left the ceremony.
Jesse Owens, a black American athlete, won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin with Adolf Hitler at his peak in Germany. He did not give the Nazi salute on podium.
But perhaps the most important podium protest came at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico.
African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who had won gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200-mete, raised a black-gloved fist and didn’t wear shoes during the US national anthem on the podium. Additionally Smith, Carlos, and Australian silver medalist Peter Norman all wore human rights badges on their jackets.
After that, Smith and Carlos were initially criticised and ostracised by the US sporting community while Norman also received flak from conservatives in Australia. The tide turned and they were eventually seen as heroes while in 2012, Australia also formally apologised to Norman.
At the next Olympics, Wayne Collett and Vincent Matthews tried a similar protest in 1972 in Munich. The two Black athletes won the gold and silver medal in 400m. On the podium, they stood casually with their hands on the hip, chatting with each other with their medals around their necks during the American national anthem. Both were eventually banned from future Olympic competition by the IOC.
At the same Games, the American men’s basketball team refused to accept their silver medal after a controversial final against Soviet Russia. To this date, despite requests, the team have refused to accept the silver.
The United States came into the final having never lost a game at the Olympics but lost the final by one point after intervention from referees and officials. Here’s how the official Olympic site describes the moment.
With just six seconds left to play, the Soviets were ahead by just one point.
And that’s where things became contentious. America’s Doug Collins won two free throws and sank them both to put his team ahead by a point. But while he was taking those shots, a time-out was called by the USSR. The game resumed with a second left, and when that went by, the United States players started celebrating.
But then the head of the governing body of basketball came on the court, and said the clock should be put back to three seconds because of a refereeing error. That was done, and the USSR’s Sasha Belov promptly scored the single basket his team needed to win. Now they were celebrating while the Americans stood furious and bemused as the game ended.
An appeal was held, and refused by three votes to two
Over the years, the podium protest has not been as political as the ones at the Olympics but it does get the issue noticed at a global level. As Tommie Smith told Smithsonian magazine about the Black Power salute; “We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.”