Because Gwen Berry, an American athlete in track and field, stood on the podium after gaining gold in a hammer throw during last year’s Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru, she could no longer be the silent, good-behaved and compliant athlete that the international sportswoman wanted system. to be her.
Dressed in a blue jacket with the coat of arms of the US Olympic Committee and blue lipstick, Berry stood and watched the American flag rise when her national anthem explodes around the stadium.
In her moment of sporting glory, the lyrics and ideals that Berry should have represented never felt so devastated and, of course, did not reflect her reality as a black woman in the United States.
What happened next, Berry hardly explains. She did not plan to raise her right fist, but pain, pain and years of systemic oppression swept all the fibers of her body.
When the “land of the free and the home of the brave” echoed, Berry raised her fist to the sky, holding it in the air when the anthem ended.
“I just felt something. I do not know what it was. When I was there, I just felt like something came upon me. I can’t describe it, ”Berry told CBC Sports from Houston. “It was like a spirit. I felt different. It was indescribable, but I will never forget it or regret it. ”
Berry knew that there would be consequences, and that she was likely to be condemned by many in her home country – in the same way, more than 50 years before the Americans Tommy Smith and John Carlos were convicted of raising their fists on the podium. at the 1968 olympic games in mexico. City.
Or just as the NFL quarterback Colin Kapernik was offended and called unpatriotic for kneeling during the American anthem in protest of police brutality.
“Martin Luther King was killed because he went against the system. Keppernik’s career was killed. His character was killed. What are we doing with a system that kills our peaceful people? ” Berry asked.
“After my position, I lost about $ 50,000. This has affected my family and how I can take care of them. I have lost sponsorship. My career was also killed. Or at least they are trying to kill her. ”
The International Olympic Committee reprimanded Berry and put her on probation for 12 months, outlawing any other protests within a year.
In January, the IOC issued a guide to protests during the Olympic Games. According to rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, athletes are prohibited from taking a political position on the playing field.
“The fundamental principle is that sport is neutral and should be separated from political, religious or any other type of interference,” the IOC document says, emphasizing that “the emphasis on the playing field and related ceremonies should be aimed at celebrating the performance athletes. ” “.
The opinion of the IOC is not shared by all.
Akaash Maharaj, the former CEO of the Canadian equestrian team, openly criticized the hypocrisy shown by the IOC when he states that sport should be separated from politics.
“The IOC is guilty of hypocrisy in this statement,” Maharaj said. “There are few political institutions like the IOC. If the IOC wants to remove politics from sports, then the IOC must withdraw the IOC from sports. ”
Maharaja says the IOC puts athletes in a difficult position when they have to choose between representing their country, silence or saying and protesting injustice.
“Silence in the face of injustice is complicity. And silence in the face of evil is evil in itself, ”he said.
Although it took Smith and Carlos decades to be remembered as the heroes of this political gesture, raising awareness of civil injustice towards blacks in America, Maharaj says their story is an important lesson for athletes today.
[Athletes] must make a terribly difficult choice if they comply with the IOC’s requirements in order to remain silent, or if they intend to use their votes.– Akaash Maharaj, former CEO of the Canadian equestrian team
“They have to make a terribly difficult choice if they comply with the IOC’s requirements in order to remain silent, or if they intend to use their votes. This is a difficult choice. Because today, as in 1968, there will be a price to pay “
Gwen Berry knows the price too well, but she says she will not be silenced.
There were so many moments in Berry’s life that made her realize that she needed to use her platform as an agent of change and shed light on police brutality in the United States.
She grew up in Ferguson, in the same city of Missouri, where in the summer of 2014 a white policeman shot dead 18-year-old Michael Brown. The shooting caused weeks of protests and violent clashes with the police.
“I went to the same parties as Mike Brown. I hung out with the same people. I went to the same school. I walked along the same streets, ”she said. “We grew up in the same area. It hit me. ”
It hit so hard that Berry flew home from athletics to walk the streets night after night with protesters in her hometown.
“You could feel the tension on the street. I have never felt anything like this in my entire life. That was sad. People were sad and angry. And bewildered. How did this happen in the world? ” Berry said.
“It was the most impressive thing I’ve experienced in my life, and from that day on I became a rebel, if you want to call it that.”
Since then there has been no turning back.
Gwen gave birth to a son, Derrick, when she was only 15 years old. On June 9, he turns 16 years old, and Berry is doing everything possible to prepare him for what black life in America looks like.
“I feel that the best way I can prepare my child and teach him so that he can cope with what is happening is going as far as I can in history. I have to tell him the true story of America. “I have to tell him that people really treat him,” she said.
Berry, now 30 years old, says the same injustices are played out over and over with the death of George Floyd, a black man who pleaded for air when a policeman pressed his knee on his neck. His death in Minneapolis came after tensions had already erupted after two white men were arrested in May for killing a black runner Ahmaud Arbury in Georgia in February, and Louisville police shot dead Breona Taylor in her Kentucky home in March, which also attracted attention. national attention.
The berry is devastated and exhausted by all of this, unable to watch a video of Floyd suffocating for air until days later.
“I did not want to see what I knew was going to happen. I finally watched it. I was upset. I cried. And then she asked what I can do, ”she said.
Berry is in Houston, joins the protesters, continuing to prepare for the rescheduled Olympics in Tokyo.
“Nothing can change or change until the system changes. And I feel that in my life I will not see a complete change in America. The system must be burned to the ground. The whole system must be rebuilt. The constitution has to be redefined. We need to redefine what it means to be an American citizen, “Berry said.
“Let it burn. I absolutely stand with the rebels and protesters. “
If the Olympics took place this summer and if Berry got there to compete, her probationary period would still be valid. But with the transfer of the Games, she will no longer be tested for potential protest on the podium in the summer of 2021.
“They better watch out,” she said.