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US Marathon Runners Wave Palestinian Flag At Olympic Trials

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The Olympics have never been apolitical, and this year, athletes have already begun to make political statements ahead of the games in Paris this summer. During the Olympic marathon trials, three US athletes unfurled the Palestinian flag at the finish line. As Israel’s genocide against Palestinians in Gaza continues unimpeded by the US and Europe, the possibility of the Paris Olympics turning into a political battleground for the international Palestinian solidarity movement grows more likely. Jesse Joseph, one of the athletes at the center of the recent display of solidarity at the Olympic trials, joins Edge of Sports to explain his and his fellow athletes’ actions, and discuss how Palestine could figure in the upcoming games.

Studio Production: David Hebden
Post-Production: Taylor Hebden
Audio Post-Production: David Hebden
Opening Sequence: Cameron Granadino
Music by: Eze Jackson & Carlos Guillen


Transcript

Dave Zirin:  Welcome to Edge of Sports TV only on The Real News Network, I’m Dave Zirin. We are talking today to marathoner and Olympic hopeful, Jesse Joseph, about why he waved a Palestinian flag along with three other runners as he crossed the finish line in the Olympic trials. Let’s get him on right now. Let’s find out what went down. Jesse Joseph. Jesse Joseph, thank you so much for joining us here on Edge of Sports.

Jesse Joseph:  Thanks for having me. A pleasure to be here.

Dave Zirin:  As I said in your introduction, you crossed the finish line carrying a Palestinian flag, three other competitors did the same. It was to make a statement of solidarity with the Palestinian people. I can, and I’m sure my viewers could, certainly understand doing that in front of City Hall or an embassy, but you chose that particular space to make a statement. Why is that?

Jesse Joseph:  We had been talking about it for weeks, there’s a long history of it. Me and my wife first got the idea because a while ago, a runner in the Athens Marathon who was the women’s leader, was carrying a Palestinian flag in her fist across the finish line and we thought that was so cool. For me, to be able to make a statement in solidarity with Palestinians right now, at what is probably the highest level that I can, at an elite-level marathon, was important. To use the platform that I had and also to do it in a way that’s important and relevant to me.

I’m a marathoner and I spend a lot of my life and energy training for this but I also spend a lot of my life and energy thinking about injustice. It’s been impossible to ignore the absolute devastation that has been happening in Gaza these past four months. The death toll is horrific. The human consequences, not just immediately for their lives but for their futures, are horrific and I can’t look away. I know that many of us can’t look away. For me, Aiden, Julian, and Nadir felt that we had to do something, call attention as we could, and use our platform.

Dave Zirin:  You remind me of something that John Carlos, the 1968 Olympian, once said to me where he said if I wasn’t an Olympian, I would’ve raised my fist in front of the Apollo Theater instead of the ’68 Olympics. It was where I happened to be. So many top-flight athletes like yourself, by the necessity of competition and training, do live life with political blinders on. How did you come to this issue?

Jesse Joseph:  It’s hard to not be a little bit political if you’re paying attention to the world around you. People take that to different ends; Some people watch, they absorb, and they worry and some people take action. It takes some time to get to the state where you can take some action but for me, it would feel disingenuous or something to try to pretend that what I’m doing – Running, competing – Is separate from what else is happening in the world. To ignore that violence and injustices are happening in the world so I can train and compete, I don’t think I would allow myself to do that morally, but also it’s hard to do. Running is a huge part of my life and if I were to run, pretend, and shut everything out, it would drive me crazy.

You need something to focus on. You need to be a holistic person in order to train well. Independent of the politics of it, I see it is a pretty common phenomenon for people to get head into training and shut everything else out. As soon as you get injured or something, it has a huge effect on your mental health. Being able to interact with the world around you and distinguish your training from what’s happening in the world, but also recognize that training, racing, and a lot of other stuff happens in the real world and you have to pay attention to it. It’s part of being a person.

Dave Zirin:  Yeah. Part of being a three-dimensional human being. Yet the International Olympic Committee and the US Olympic Committee have shown historically that they’re not big fans of three-dimensional human beings. What is the risk for an Olympic hopeful in taking an action such as you and your compañeros did on this day?

Jesse Joseph:  Yeah. That was something we spent a fair amount of time looking into. Marathon distance running or road running is governed by USATF, USA Track and Field, and the USOPC does have oversight on this race. Beyond that, the IOC has oversight over everything that happens in the Olympics. So we read the competition rules for USATF ahead of the trials and then maybe a week before the date of the marathon trials, USATF sent out a list of competition rules that included a document that had an explicit allowance for political demonstrations.

They did that because it’s something that’s happening in the sporting world now; People make political statements. A lot of that comes from these past four years with the Black Lives Matter movement, athletes taking a stand against racism, and racist policing in the US. You mentioned John Carlos and Tommy Smith a second ago, and there’s a long history of athletes trying to take a stand and using their platform to do so. It was interesting that USATF sent this out and it allows explicitly for athletes to make political demonstrations during competition. It mentions specific things like wearing a mask that says Black Lives Matter or things like that. There are things that you can’t do. So there are general regulations about uniforms and things like that but that’s independent of political statements and more like you can’t have too much commercial branding.

So the challenge, the danger is that this issue of Palestinian human rights and the invasion of Gaza is a political hot button that people suffer consequences for supporting all the time. A lot of people have lost their jobs because they’ve taken a vocal stand and said that what is happening in Gaza is a human historical tragedy and to say that opens you up to a lot of political stuff. It opens you up to a lot of targeting and that’s frustrating because this is a horrible thing that’s happening. Anybody with eyes can see that the destruction of Gaza is so far beyond a crime, that to try to silence the voices that acknowledge that, is horrifying. What we did is explicitly allowed as far as we could tell by USATF and we picked these stick flags because the top contenders, a lot of times we’ll grab an American stick flag as they run to the finish towards the end. So we were like, we know the stick flag thing is technically okay. We know that we can make a statement, this is how we’re going to do it.

It was a great thing that also there were activists on the ground who were in the crowd holding Palestinian flags, making a big show. All that coming together was really great. There are definitely challenges moving forward, I didn’t qualify for the Olympics but the IOC is a lot more strict about the ability for athletes to make political statements. Back to USATF, Max Siegel, who’s the CEO of USA Track and Fields did make a statement a little while ago that said that they encourage or at least support athlete’s abilities to make political statements. The IOC is a totally different can of worms. So you probably know that IOC Rule 50 is the rule that was instated after Tommy Smith and John Carlos did the Black Power salute on the podium in 1968. IOC Rule 50 passed in the 1970s or something.

It basically says that you can’t do politics if you’re competing. Athletes have to just be athletes. They have to shut up and compete and nowhere can you bring in any political statements. The Tokyo Olympics, I don’t know if it was a change in the rules or a clarification, but they put out some stuff that said no politics on the podium, in competition, or the Olympic Village. But you can, during interactions with the press, make political statements and stuff like that. So that’s the terrain that is safe but you can always take risks. Trying to play by the rules that the IOC has put forward, concedes the idea that athletes can be athletes and all they are is an extremely capable body and there’s no mind in there that can recognize injustice happening.

Dave Zirin:  Yeah. It’s difficult to imagine we won’t see similar expressions to yours at the Paris Olympics.

Jesse Joseph:  Absolutely. I hope so. I wasn’t a top contender for the Olympic marathon trials, regardless, I hope that what we did encourages other athletes, especially track and field athletes, to take a stand and stand up and say that we support Gaza, we support Palestinians, and to not be afraid of repression such that they’ll silence themselves. That was the goal, to encourage other people to be able to do the same thing. And we’re seeing it all around the world: Athletes in different sports taking stands.

Dave Zirin:  Is fear the greatest obstacle to seeing more athletes speak out at this point? Is it insecurity? Is it the blinder’s issue of having to focus on the Olympics? What do you think is the block to seeing masses of athletes speaking out for Palestine right now?

Jesse Joseph:  It’s a combination of fear and the blinders thing. A lot of people do want to avoid politics and you can’t force people to pretend to care about the world around them; They have to come to that conclusion themselves. But a lot of people do. A lot of athletes do. I can think of a number of track and field athletes who I know care about this issue. Some of them are outspoken about it on social media but to make a stand when there is a possibility that you might be punished for it or disqualified or something is really hard, and I totally understand that. But to allow that to silence you and us and our voices would be a huge loss. So finding creative ways to make statements and to call for justice in Palestine is crucial. I have faith. Not every track and field athlete in the world is going to put up blinders and is too afraid to say something.

You asked what inspired us to do this. There’s another example, actually. I live in Portland, Oregon, and the World Track and Field Championships were held in Eugene in 2022. After the men’s 800, Djamel Sedjati who runs for Algeria, took a surprise silver medal and the first thing he did was he grabbed a big Palestinian flag and he took a victory lap. And that was really cool, that was so exciting to see. To see people at the highest level, taking that risk, and making a big, bold statement, is really powerful. I hope that those examples, and the thing that me, Aiden, Julian, and Nadir did, encourage people to say, okay, yeah, maybe I will get some flack on social media. Maybe people will be mad at me, whatever. But this is what I care about. This is what I believe in and I’m going to say it.

Dave Zirin:  Okay. So for athletes who do believe in justice for Palestine, who believe in a ceasefire, should they be advancing a demand that Israel be barred from the 2024 Paris Olympics? Is that a position you agree with? Is that something athletes should be pushing for right now? Or is that the thing where you might think it punishes the athletes for the actions of the state? Where do you stand on athletes for Israel to not be present at these Olympics?

Jesse Joseph:  I would say that not every athlete who believes in justice for Palestine believes that Israel should be banned. I personally do, and I really hope that people who care about the future and security of Palestinians think critically about what that demand is and understand that there’s a history to it. Right now, Russia is facing sanctions from the IOC, that their IOC looks like they’re trying to walk back on. But Russia is currently facing sanctions that Russian athletes can compete but not under the Russian flag. It’s something like that, roughly. And that’s one example but the example to point to is the 30 or so years that South Africa was banned from the Olympics as a consequence of the apartheid regime. That’s an important piece of history to understand because so much of the global movement for Palestinian justice draws from the tactics and the politics of the global movement against apartheid in South Africa.

A big part of that was sports recall for boycotts. One of the ways that countries that do obvious human rights abuses longer their reputation in the international sphere is by participating in international events and sports and things like that. So this idea that this country in South Africa, which had a brutally racist apartheid government, could participate in international forums including the Olympics and athletics, while their teams were literally apartheid teams – It was the Africanists who were going to compete and not the Black South Africans – The idea that they could compete alongside the rest of the world and that would be normal, normalizes the idea that apartheid is fine. So there’s a direct relationship there where many human rights organizations have found that the system of occupation and the military governance of the West Bank and Gaza do constitute apartheid.

So the tactics and the demands of the anti-apartheid movement against South Africa do make sense in the Palestinian context. A useful example of that would be like, yeah, South African sports were run along the lines of apartheid. Well, Israeli sports are also run along the lines of apartheid. There are a number of sporting targets in the BDS movement – I can talk about BDS later – But one of them is a call for FIFA to ban the IFA, the Israel Football Association, because the IFA includes a bunch of teams from the settlements. The illegal settlements are soccer teams that are Jewish-only soccer teams that represent settlements in illegally occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank. And for FIFA to accept the IFA as a member body, to acknowledge that these teams in the entire world recognize our illegal settlements, to consider those as reasonable participants in a league, is apparent. Therefore, the call to ban Israel is a call to ban the apartheid and the apartheid sporting organizations.

Dave Zirin:  You’ve been so generous with your time. I have one more question, but before we get to it, you made a really important point that I want to put a magnifying glass on. When we talk about sportswashing in athletic circles, usually what we mean is an authoritarian country hosting a sporting event as a way to cover up domestic crimes or crushing domestic descent. There are a lot of ways sportswashing operates but this is sportswashing too if Israel gets to compete because it normalizes what’s happening right now in Gaza as if it’s being welcomed into the community of nations when it should be a pariah given the crimes on display. One other point is that the IOC has in its bylaws that if you are occupying the athletic facilities of another country that has caused you to be banned from the Olympics, and when you look at the way that stadiums in Gaza have been turned into internment camps, by the IOCs own letter of the law, Israel should not be allowed in the Olympics.

Jesse Joseph:  Absolutely. And that’s one example. There are a lot of examples. In general, its governance over the West Bank and Gaza, over Palestinians, and over Palestine, prevent people from training and competing. There was an example where, in 2016 or something, the captain of the Palestinian Olympic Soccer Team couldn’t travel to Brazil because he couldn’t leave Gaza. The head coach of the Palestinian Olympic Soccer Team, killed, sometime in the last four months. All of these things should constitute gross violations of the Olympic spirit, and the Olympic creed, and to allow that into the Olympics, would be a travesty.

Dave Zirin:  Jesse Joseph, this has been so incredibly helpful. I wanted to give you the last word. Is there anything else you want to add about your experience, or about your political journey that you want our listeners to know?

Jesse Joseph:  The immediate experience has been gratifying. A lot of people have reached out and said this was really meaningful, thank you for doing this. And that tells me that for all the athletes out there who want to take a stand but are afraid to lash back or whatever, you will find support. You’ll find support from me and you’ll find support from a lot of people around you because a lot of people want to say something, but they’re afraid. And if you can say something, if you can be their voice and encourage them to say something as well, is rewarding in its own right and it is absolutely the right and moral thing to do.

Dave Zirin:  Amazing. Jesse Joseph, thank you so much for joining us here on Edge of Sports.

Jesse Joseph:  Thank you so much, Dave.

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