Seven athletes standing up for what they believe in

Eighteen years ago today, Cathy Freeman sprinted to victory in front of a home crowd at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

The image of Freeman running her victory lap carrying the Australian and Aboriginal flags remains in Australia’s collective mindset.

Over the years, a number of high profile athletes from around the world have spoken up for what they believe in. Here are seven iconic moments in history (in no particular order) in which sport and human rights walked together hand-in-hand.

1. Cathy Freeman

Cathy Freeman has long been a symbol of hope and reconciliation for Australia. In an iconic moment for Australian sports, Freeman took home the gold medal in the 400-metre race at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The image of her running barefoot and proud, flying both the Australian and Aboriginal flags, united the country – if only for a brief moment.

“It was always a dream of mine to not only win an Olympic gold medal but to do the victory lap with both flags,” Freeman said in a documentary about the Sydney Olympics.

“I hold the Aboriginal community in such a high place in my heart so I’m very proud of my Indigenous roots.”

Cathy Freeman, olympic gold medalist

The former Australian sprinter had previously caused controversy by carrying both flags during her victory lap after winning the 200-metre sprint at the Commonwealth Games in 1994.

In 1995, Prime Minister Paul Keating officially made the Aboriginal flag a national flag, and it now sits proudly alongside the Australian National flag.

In 2007, Freeman founded the Cathy Freeman Foundation which works with remote Indigenous communities to close the gap in education between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children in Australia.

2. Colin Kaepernick

Two men dressed in the red and yellow team strip of the San Francisco 49ers kneel in protest during the singing of the American national anthem before a football game. Behind them their team mates are standing and in the ba
Colin Kaepernick (right) of the San Francisco 49ers is joined by teammate Eric Reid (left) in kneeling in protest during the American national anthem prior to playing the Los Angeles Rams in their NFL game at Levi’s Stadium on 12 September, 2016 in Santa Clara, California © Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

During the 2016 pre-season of the American National Football League, Colin Kaepernick knelt during the US national anthem, as a respectful way of calling on his country to protect and uphold the rights of all its people. The bold move was a response to the disproportionate numbers of black people being killed by police. It sparked a movement that follows a long tradition of non-violent protests that made history in the United States.

While the polarised response to the “take-a-knee” protest ignited a debate about free speech and the right to protest, Colin Kaepernick remained focused on highlighting the injustices that moved him to act. His charity, the Colin Kaepernick Foundation, works to fight oppression around the world through education and social activism, including through free “Know Your Rights” camps which educate and empower young people.

For his courage, Colin Kaepernick was awarded the Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award in 2018.

3. Billie Jean King

Tennis players Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973
Tennis players Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973 © Private

In 1973, an infamous tennis match known as the “Battle of the Sexes” between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs changed the future of women’s tennis forever. Bobby Riggs was a former Wimbledon champion known to be a notorious chauvinist, and Billie Jean King’s victory in the match was an emblematic milestone on the road to gender equality in sports.

In the 45 years since that extraordinary match, Billie Jean King has jeopardised her tennis career on numerous occasions to speak out for both women’s equality and LGBTQI rights.

During the 1960s and 70s, King spoke out for better pay for women tennis players, who earned significantly less than male players. Joining eight other women tennis players, Billie Jean signed a $1 contract and joined the Virginia Slims Circuit founded by Gladys Heldman in 1970 to protest against the inequity in prize money. This group of brave women, known as the “Original 9,” backed Billie Jean as she formed the Women’s Tennis Association and became its first President.

In 2009, former US President Barack Obama awarded Billie Jean King the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her advocacy work on behalf of women and the LGBTQI community.

4. Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali vs. Ernie Terrell, Houston Astrodome, Houston, TX, 1967
Muhammad Ali vs. Ernie Terrell, Houston Astrodome, Houston, TX, 1967 © Cliff/Flickr

In 1967, the former American professional boxer refused to fight in the Vietnam War, citing his conscience and personal convictions in rejecting the call to be drafted.

His courage to stand up for his beliefs led to a five-year prison sentence (although no time was served), a $10,000 fine, the seizing of his passport, a ban from fighting in the US and the stripping of his heavyweight title. He returned to boxing in 1970 and his conviction was reversed in 1971.

5, 6 and 7. Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman

Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman at the Olympic Games in Mexico City in 1968 © Ur Cameras/Flickr

In an act that scandalised the 1968 Mexico Olympics, African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos made a silent protest heard around the world. Protesting racial discrimination against black people in the United States, the pair stood on the medal podium with their heads bowed and a fist raised in the Black Power salute to the tune of the American National Anthem.

Both men were sent home in disgrace and banned from the Olympics for life, but were lauded as heroes by many.

Incidentally, Peter Norman, an Australian sprinter from Melbourne who took silver that year and stood on the podium with Smith and Carlos, supported the plan to protest. He wore a small Olympic Project for Human Rights badge. His support did not go down well in Australia and never ran in the Olympics again. However, the three remained lifelong friends, with Smith and Carlos acting as pallbearers at Norman’s funeral in 2006.

There are so many brave and politically-conscious athletes, too many to name in a single blog post, so feel free to add yours to the comments in the field below. Who did we miss?

Profile Picture
Online Editor