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Soccer players kneel to start new era of Olympic activism

Long restricted by the International Olympic Committee, such protests within limited parameters are now permitted at the Games inside the field of play.

TOKYO, Japan — The referee’s whistle blew, the British players glanced at one another and they dropped to their knees. Their Chilean counterparts responded in kind, all taking a knee at the Sapporo Dome.

An hour later, it was the American and Swedish players in Tokyo taking part Wednesday in united, unprecedented gestures against racism by teams at an Olympics.

And the final women's soccer game of the day saw Australia’s players pose with an Indigenous flag and link arms before kickoff while their New Zealand counterparts knelt.

On the initial day of action at the Tokyo Games, the soccer players were the first athletes to use the Olympic platform for a display of activism.

Long restricted by the International Olympic Committee, such protests within limited parameters are now permitted at the Games inside the field of play.

Unlike in sports like the NFL, where players take a knee during the national anthem, in soccer it happens just before kickoff.

“It’s an opportunity for us to continue to use our voices and use our platforms to talk about the things that affect all of us intimately in different ways,” U.S. captain Megan Rapinoe said after her team's shock 3-0 opening loss to Sweden about using the Olympics to address social issues.

“We have people from Team USA, from all over the country, from all backgrounds, and people literally from all over the world for every other team so I obviously encourage everyone to use that platform to the best of their ability to do the most good that they possibly can in the world, especially as all eyes are on Tokyo these next couple weeks.”

The Americans had decided earlier this year to stop kneeling during the anthem. It had started in soccer in 2016 with Rapinoe being inspired to show solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, who decided to kneel rather than stand during the anthem while playing for the San Francisco 49ers.

“We’re on the global stage,” Rapinoe said, “with the world’s media, and eyeballs and people’s attention, all drawn to one place with a collection of incredible athletes from all over the world, who care a lot about what they’re doing here in Tokyo in terms of their sport, and who care a lot about a lot of other things."

The British players decided at a team meeting before flying to Japan to perform the gesture that has been featured over the last year at club matches in the Women’s Super League in England.

“We felt strongly as a group that we wanted to show support for those affected by discrimination and equality,” Britain captain Steph Houghton said after the 2-0 win over Chile. “It was a proud moment because the Chile players took the knee too to show how united we are as sport.”

The Chile squad was, however, caught unaware that their opponents were going to take a knee. Once they spotted the kneeling, Chile defender Daniela Pardo did the same, followed by her teammates.

“It was an issue of not being in sync,” Chile midfielder Karen Araya said. “We weren’t able to communicate properly due to the language. The moment we saw the English taking the knee right away we decided to do the same and of course we are in favor of this type of thing.”

Soccer previously shunned any form of activism at matches. But FIFA relaxed its policy last year after players in Europe decided to use matches to protest racial injustice sparked by the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white police officer.

FIFA also told referees to apply common sense and to allow players to display T-shirts with messages against racism that previously were banned in soccer, even for matters of social awareness.

The IOC allows gestures of activism — if permitted by that sport’s governing body — only before or after the official start of events at the Olympics. The official website of the Olympics made no mention of players taking a knee on Wednesday.

Podium protests are still off-limits, prohibiting a repeat of the raised black-gloved fists of American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

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