Hammer thrower Gwen Berry’s act of protest by turning away from the flag during the National Anthem at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials has ignited a passionate debate, with some supporting her stance and others saying she shouldn’t represent the country in the summer games.
Berry qualified for her second Olympic Games this year, placing third in the hammer throw. As the medal ceremony got underway Saturday, “The Star-Spangled Banner” played over loudspeakers just as Berry and her two co-medalists were getting their awards. Berry noted that the anthem is usually played at 5:20 p.m. local time, but this time it apparently began at 5:25, right around when the players were being awarded.
Berry, who is a longtime vocal activist, told ESPN she thought the choice was intentional. “I feel like it was a setup, and they did it on purpose… I was pissed, to be honest,” Berry said.
She added, “They said they were going to play it before we walked out, then they played it when we were out there, but I don’t really want to talk about the anthem because that’s not important. The anthem doesn’t speak for me. It never has,” Berry told ESPN.
But a USA Track and Field spokeswoman Susan Hazzard told NBC Bay Area, “The national anthem was scheduled to play at 5:20 p.m. today. We didn’t wait until the athletes were on the podium for the hammer throw awards. The national anthem is played every day according to a previously published schedule.”
Regardless, Berry decided to make a statement on the podium; she turned so she was facing the stands instead of the U.S. flag and put a black t-shirt that read “Activist Athlete” over her head.
Berry went on to say she feels that it’s her duty to use her platform as a worldwide athlete to bring awareness to injustices, especially those faced by Black Americans. “My purpose and my mission is bigger than sports,” Berry told ESPN. “I’m here to represent those who died due to systemic racism. That’s the important part. That’s why I’m going. That’s why I’m here today.”
The 31 year-old from St. Louis isn’t a stranger to bringing political activism into sports — she raised her fist in a Black Power salute when on the podium at the Pan America Games in Peru during 2019 to protest injustice in America “and a president who’s making it worse.” This symbolic move wasn’t approved by the USOPC, who said she violated Rule 50 of the International Olympic Committee’s statute that bars athletes from engaging in political demonstrations at events. As a result, Berry was put on probation for a year and lost many sponsors, including Nike. She told the Washington Post on June 21 that Puma recently signed on to sponsor her bid in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
Like any political demonstration, especially one that overlaps with sports, Berry’s gesture had mixed — and frequently extremely — reactions. Some people praised her, including author Nathan Kalman-Lamb who said, “This photo of Gwen Berry (turning away from the flag) and the other two hammer throw medalists on the podium really tells you everything you need to know about who the US anthem/flag/nation are really for. Solidarity to Berry.”
Others were angered that Berry — who has a history of political activism in sports, as sports reporter Nancy Armour pointed out – was using the platform to get political. Conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza was one of the right-wing pundits saying Berry should be ashamed of her stance and implied that athlete activists like Berry are going to make people cheer “for foreign competitors” instead during the Olympics.
Take a look at some of the reactions to Berry’s controversial move below.