One Fist, One Podium, One Large Reprimand: Olympian speaks about her Pan-American protest and the punishment that followed it
"Nothing changes until people speak out about different controversial issues. I feel it is important for them to be encouraged, put on a brave face and fight for what’s right.”
October 28, 2020
One minute and fifty-five seconds. In this short amount of time, the life of Olympic hammer thrower and SIU alumna Gwen Berry was changed forever.
After winning the gold medal in the women’s hammer throw at the 2019 Pan-American Games, Berry took the podium to be honored. Minutes later the “Star Spangled Banner” rang throughout the stadium.
What happened next was neither expected by the crowd, nor planned by Berry. As the anthem came to an end, she balled her hand into a fist and raised it high to protest racism and the plight of Black people in the U.S.
“It was unintentional and I didn’t plan it: it was just a spur-of-the-moment thing because I felt the national anthem didn’t speak for people like me in this country. I feel like the national anthem is hypocritical, and so for the national anthem, I just decided to protest,” Berry said.
After protesting, Berry was almost immediately met with serious consequences, the bulk of which was handed out by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
“Immediately afterward, of course, I was in trouble. I had meetings with the USOPC [United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee] and with the Pan American Committee to acknowledge that I did something ‘wrong’ and that I breached my contract. I was punished for 12 months after that,” Berry said.
During the 12-month period, where she was placed on probation, Berry said she could not make any political statements in the field of play, on the podium, or at any track and field event.
In the athletes’ declaration the International Olympic Committee requires athletes to, “Comply with applicable national laws, and the rules of the qualification processes and competitions, of the sport, and of the relevant sporting organization, as well as the Olympic Charter.”
Berry was punished for breaking Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter which states, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
A case of déjà vu
Berry’s protest is not the first instance where a Black athlete has been punished by the IOC for demonstrating on an international platform.
In 1968, USA Olympic track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists in the air during the “Star-Spangled Banner” after taking the podium for placing first and third in the 200-meter dash. The photograph taken of this demonstration is now one of the most famous in sports history and shows the pair raising their fists on the podium.
The two were suspended from the U.S. team and banned from Olympic Village. Financially, the pair suffered a great deal, even becoming homeless at one point.
In 2019, it was announced that both Smith and Carlos were being inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame.
More recently, outrage has been directed at former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during the playing of the national anthem, first in September 2016, and continued to do so until leaving his team at the end of the season.
Kaepernick has not officially retired but has not played for an NFL team since 2016. There has been speculation as to whether or not his unemployment is a form of punishment for his demonstration on the field.
Breaking Rule 50 and her silence to promote change
Since her punishment for violating Rule 50, Berry has partnered with Color of Change, a non-profit civil rights advocacy organization, to push the International Olympic Committee to eliminate this clause from the Olympic Charter.
“I am working with Color of Change, which is an organization that helps champion Black people and their movements, and so I’ve been doing a lot of things with them. We’ve been in contact with the IOC [International Olympic Committee] to help change that rule,” Berry said.
Berry also lost several sponsors and grants as a result of her protest.
“I was defunded by companies and corporations and I was not granted a lot of grants because of my protest. So, besides my probation, I was significantly defunded, and it almost ruined my career,” Berry said.
Berry and Color of Change are also working to create a fund for athletes who have suffered financially after using their platform to speak out about social justice issues.
“We are honored to support Olympian Gwen Berry, who is a shining example of the bravery and boldness it takes to take a public stand against injustice no matter what,” Color of Change President Rashad Robinson said in a Sept. 8 press release. “Corporations must step up and fully support Black athletes who fight for racial justice. It is not enough to merely issue Black Lives Matter statements. Companies that make an enormous profit off of athletes of color, like Nike, have an opportunity now to move from words to actions in order to truly stand in solidarity with Black communities.”
The organization has also started a petition for individuals across the globe to sign in support of Berry.
Berry has also partnered with organizations like Athletes Igniting Action and the LA84 Foundation.
Athletes are human too or Pushing the censorship of the pedestal
Berry said she feels athletes are no different than regular citizens and should be allowed to protest the issues that are affecting their communities.
“I definitely feel that it [sports and protesting] should go hand-in-hand because athletes are human beings too. We have feelings, we pay our taxes and we are part of this country and community. Just because we are athletes and we entertain people as well, doesn’t mean that we can’t speak out about certain things that are happening in going on in our communities.”
Michael Champion, Berry’s mentor since her freshman year at SIU in 2008, said he feels athletes like Berry, who protest on the field, allow for issues affecting many voiceless people to be put in the spotlight and seen around the world.
“I hope that they [the sports world] learn that these athletes aren’t robots and that they aren’t here strictly for the entertainment purposes of those of us who watch them. They are people with their own life experiences and are people who are representations of long lines of family ancestry who have fought, bled, and died for equal justice for the rights of all people,” Champion said.
Activism or Performative Activism?
In the wake of police killings of unarmed Black men and women including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor during the Summer of 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement has emerged from its place as an outlier into the mainstream where it is being recognized by organizations and individuals worldwide.
According to the Washington Post, the USOPC sent a letter to U.S. athletes earlier in June that said it would be forming an “athlete-led group to challenge the rules and systems in our own organization that create barriers to progress, including your right to protest.”
Champion said the USOPC’s handling of Berry’s situation was unfair, and can now be seen as hypocritical, as they are only now making changes.
“I thought it was unfortunate [and] unfair, particularly now that social justice has kind of made its way again to the forefront of society, and now they’re looking kind of hypocritical with how they handled the situation with her making that statement a few years back,” Champion said.
Head coach of the Saluki track and field team Rosalind Joseph said reprimanding athletes without having a conversation addressing the necessary changes that should be made is not helpful to overall progress.
“It’s tough. I understand that there is a rule in place, so I think it’s something that [the committee] had to do, but also, you’ve seen it with the NFL now and universities, where administrators are going back and asking, ‘Are we on the right side of history? Are we doing the right thing?’. I think that more than anything, rather than just reprimanding and moving on, you can have a conversation about how you can change, improve and do this in a way that both parties are satisfied with the platform that is being given,” Joseph said.
Homeschooled in Black history
From an early age, Berry learned Black history and the African American struggle for equality from her father, Michael Berry, and her grandfather James Berry.
“My grandfather and father are both self-educated about Black history,” Berry said. “They studied a small amount of this history in school, but we all know that universities don’t teach much.”
According to Berry, her grandfather has a collection of Black history artifacts in his home.
“My grandfather collects old books discussing the period of slavery. His artifacts include articles from [slavery] days like old whips, cups, books, etc. He has a whole room in his house dedicated to his collection,” Berry said.
Berry said her father, who is a teacher and football coach in the St. Louis public school district, taught her about the intersection of Black protest and sports.
Berry said after seeing her protest, her grandfather wrote her several letters.
“My grandfather has shared these same stories with me and wrote me beautiful pieces after my protest. He was so happy and proud of me, and he framed two beautifully written letters telling me how I am like my ancestors and how they are looking down on me,” Berry said.
Berry grew up in St. Louis with what she described as a happy childhood that had its drawbacks and struggles.
“I feel like my childhood, even though I was really happy and my grandparents, my dad, and my aunt made sure that I was a happy child, I feel like it wasn’t the best childhood,” Berry said. “We didn’t have the best living situation, that much money or financial stability. So, I feel like growing up, I was naive to a lot of things. I was happy growing up, but we were poor.”
As one of the oldest children in a household consisting of 13 family members, Gwen took on a leadership role among the children, according to her sister Quincy Berry.
“She was the older sibling out of all of the cousins, so from early on, she took a leadership role even though she might not have wanted to. You could just always tell she was mature and sometimes bossy. She was what a good big sister should be,” Quincy said.
From STL to SIU
Despite becoming a world-class athlete in the sport, Berry was not introduced to track and field until her sophomore year at Mccluer High School. She didn’t pick up a hammer until her sophomore year of college at SIU.
“Basically, my high school basketball coach wanted me to do track just to stay in shape for basketball,” Berry said. “I started my sophomore year and at the end of my senior year, I found out that I kind of wanted to do track more than basketball because I wasn’t big enough to be a star basketball player, so I went to college for track.”
During her time at SIU, Berry earned multiple conference honors and titles, several All-American honors, and numerous national championship qualifications.
In 2017, Berry was inducted into the Saluki Athletics Hall of Fame. Her path to success wasn’t a traditional one.
At the age of 15, Berry gave birth to her son and spent time away from him while attending university and competing.
“I feel like that was a hard experience because I was always away from my son. My son was raised by his father and his grandparents on his father’s side, and they did an amazing job with him while I was away,” Berry said. “It definitely was hard, you know, I think I suffered from depression and anxiety just being away from my family, so it was a struggle.”
According to Champion, her determination to achieve what others may deem impossible makes her someone for young people to look up to.
“Gwen came to college as a triple jumper and to go from an 18-year-old triple jumper, to the best hammer thrower in the world takes quite a bit of commitment and dedication. She has an elite level of determination and I think those are things that young people can look at and say that, ‘I can put my mind to something and achieve it, regardless of how unrealistic it might seem to others.’ She’s an example of what commitment and dedication can do for a young person,” Champion said.
Risking it all: finding financial stability before and after Rio
Determination and strength seem to define Berry, even in the latter stages of her career.
After graduating from Southern Illinois in 2011 and becoming a professional athlete, she worked two jobs to help support her family, while also training for the 2016 Olympic Games.
“Anytime any professional athlete is training and working it takes away from their recovery and it takes away from certain things and aspects that they need to be an elite athlete,” Berry said. “When your competition is not working three jobs, and you are, they do have a one up on you all of the time. It was really hard because I would work all day, train in between my jobs, and then work all night just to maintain my financial stability and help my family out. It definitely was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
After the 2016 games, Berry gained sponsors and grants that financially support her, but all that was lost after her protest in 2019.
According to Quincy, Gwen had always vocalized her stance on social injustice but had not done so publicly because of those sponsorships.
“I feel that she has always been vocal about it [social justice] and made her opinions known, but before with her sponsors, she knew she had to tread lightly when she said the things she said publicly,” Quincy said. “She knew that she could potentially lose everything after saying how she felt. Once they backed out and stopped sponsoring her, she decided she would go for it and do what she wanted to do. She has lost almost all of her sponsors at this point, but she’s gained new ones which is nice too.”
Joseph said she saw Berry’s protest as an act of bravery and something that spoke to who she was as an individual.
“I really thought it was brave and I thought it spoke to who she was just as an individual. I didn’t coach her, but I have been around her and know her coaches, and so it was something that you could tell was really genuine and true to what she felt and believed,” Joseph said.
Hoping for change
Despite Berry’s protest receiving national attention, it didn’t garner the attention of similar protests by popular male athletes.
Quincy said the reason for this is the nation’s lack of attention given toward Black women who are a part of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I hope they [the sports world] will learn to listen to Black women when they protest the same things that Black male athletes are. With the WNBA, they were early champions of social justice as well. […] They didn’t get as much attention as Colin Kaepernick, the NBA, MLB, and all of these other male-dominant sports,” Quincy said.
Champion said his hope is for Berry’s protest to inspire those that are outside of minority communities to have more empathy and understanding.
“My hope is that Americans as a whole, will just start to view everybody as human and look at these situations with a little bit more empathy,” Champion said. “[I hope] that they can attempt to put themselves in the shoes of other people and try to understand and listen to what other people are going through and try to do something about it.”
Athlete and activist: embracing her new role
The Tokyo Games are scheduled to take place in the Summer of 2021, but Berry said if she is to protest, it will likely be done spontaneously.
“I think it will be spur of the moment. I want to keep that to myself and decide what I’ll do then.”
Berry’s focus is on training for the upcoming Olympic Games and activism in her own community.
Berry had a message for younger athletes who wish to champion social justice:
“I feel like they need to know what they can lose and what repercussions they can face, but I also think they should be encouraged and inspired,” Berry said. “I think they should be bold and brave because I feel like nothing changes until people speak out about different controversial issues. I feel it is important for them to be encouraged, put on a brave face, and fight for what’s right.”