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Olympians Take A Knee Against Racism, Under New Policy Allowing Protests

Players and officials take a knee just before the start of Wednesday's match between the U.S and Swedish women's soccer teams.
Noriko Hayashi
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Players and officials take a knee just before the start of Wednesday's match between the U.S and Swedish women's soccer teams.

British women's soccer players took a knee on the first day of competition at the Tokyo Olympics on Wednesday, in a protest against discrimination and racism that was quickly reciprocated by their opponents from Chile.

It was the first time Olympians in Japan utilized newly relaxed rules on athletes expressing their views.

"Taking the knee was something we spoke about as a group. We feel so strongly and we want to show we're united," said Steph Houghton, one of Britain's co-captains, as quoted by the BBC. "We want to fight all forms of discrimination and as a group of women, we wanted to kneel against it."

Soccer players from the U.S. and Swedish women's squads also took a knee before their match — in which Sweden upset the Americans. Just before play began, a referee joined the players at midfield in dropping to the turf on one knee. An assistant referee also took a knee.

Other athletes, including New Zealand's women's soccer team, also took a knee on Wednesday. Their opponents from Australia remained standing, with their arms intertwined. Moments earlier, the Australians had posed for their team photo holding a large flag representing Australia's Aboriginal people — a banner that was first raised 50 years ago.

"We are delighted that the IOC has made room for athletes to use their voices for good at the Olympic Games and are proud of our athletes for making a global stand for greater racial equality," said Rob Waddell, who is the New Zealand Olympic Committee's chef de mission for the Tokyo Games.

New Zealand says its Olympic delegation includes 33 athletes who are of Maori descent.

The International Olympic Committee eased its rules on "athlete expression" on July 2, detailing ways in which Olympians can express their opinions while also observing the IOC's Rule 50 — which is intended to preserve the neutrality of the Olympic Games.

Under the new guidelines, athletes in Tokyo can take a knee or perform similar gestures as long as their actions don't target specific people or countries and are not disruptive.

The Tokyo Olympics' opening ceremony is slated for Friday. Large tournament-format sports such as softball and soccer kicked off their opening rounds of group play on Wednesday.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.