TOKYO – The US women’s national team and other soccer teams kneeled before the kick-off of their Olympic opening games on Wednesday, the first demonstrations under slightly relaxed protest restrictions at the games.

The demonstrations were planned in advance, as they had been for over a year before various international football matches, as collective declarations against racism and other forms of discrimination. English Premier League players first popularized the gesture last summer following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent racial justice bill that spread from the United States around the world.

At the game USA-Sweden in an empty Tokyo stadium, all 11 starters of both teams plus the referee fell on one knee when the referee whistled. They stayed there for about 10 seconds while pregame music was still playing in the background. Then they got on and a short countdown began in the stadium until kick-off.

Several USWNT players have kneeled individually and sometimes together in the past to protest against racism. Megan Rapinoe was known to be the first white sportswoman to kneel during the national anthem shortly after Colin Kaepernick in 2017. Others have joined Rapinoe in protest before the national team since Floyd was murdered in May 2020.

The USWNT and Sweden go to their knees ahead of their Olympic kick-off in Tokyo on Wednesday. (Henry Bushnell / Yahoo Sports)

All 18 USWNT players stood for the anthem on Wednesday. It is unclear whether a protest during the anthem would be acceptable under the new IOC rules. (National anthems are not played before most Olympic events – only afterwards at medal ceremonies.)

Players from Great Britain and Chile also knelt before their game on Wednesday. They were officially the first to hold a pre-event protest acceptable under IOC rules.

The infamous Rule 50 had long banned most forms of protest at Olympic events. In January 2020, the IOC expressly prohibited kneeling and lifting fists at all Olympic venues at any time before, during or after a competition.

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But pressure from athletes who felt the rules violated their freedom of expression – and especially black athletes, some of whom felt attacked by the guidelines – increased from last June. The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s Athletes’ Advisory Board last summer called for Rule 50 to be abolished. After the formation of a Council on Race and Social Justice, the USOPC called on the IOC to end “the ban on peaceful demonstrations” at the Games.

In response, the IOC staged a lengthy review of the rule. It initially announced that it would effectively maintain the restrictions. But athletes like U.S. hammer thrower Gwen Berry said the rules wouldn’t stop them from protesting racial injustice. The IOC was essentially looking for a compromise and announced in early July that it would allow demonstrations before competitions.

However, protests at competitions and medal awards are still prohibited.

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