TOKYO — The battle lines were drawn last year.
With more and more American athletes choosing to kneel or raise a fist on the medals podium, joining a nationwide movement for social justice, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee relaxed its long-time ban on protests.
"We believe that Team USA athletes, in line with many other sports and leagues in the United States, can be a leading force for global good," USOPC chairwoman Susanne Lyons said.
The International Olympic Committee refused to follow suit, offering only a slight modification in its "no politics" stance. The IOC and the Americans appeared to be on a collision course heading for the Tokyo Games.
"People say, 'Oh, you're just an athlete' but we're not just athletes, we're people too," gymnast Simone Biles said. "We have a right to speak up for what we believe in."
But the expected confrontation has been unexpectedly muted.
With competition near the end, there have been only a few, relatively mild demonstrations by athletes from the U.S. and other countries. Whether because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of fans at venues or the heightened atmosphere of the Olympic Games, the IOC's traditional gag order has gone largely unchallenged.
At issue is Rule 50, which states: "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."
In early July, IOC officials relented a little. The podium was still off-limits, but athletes could "express their views" on-field before competition began. So there was no violation when women's soccer teams from the U.S., Sweden, Japan and other nations took a knee before their matches.
"For us it feels right to stand up for human rights," Swedish defender Amanda Ilestedt said after playing the Americans. "There was communication with the U.S. team. It feels good to do that, it is something we stand for as a team."