Olympic hammer thrower Gwen Berry says she was “set up” after turning away from the flag during a medal ceremony at the US Olympic trials on Saturday night.
The 31-year-old has a long history of activism and raised her fist as The Star-Spangled Banner ended when she won gold at the 2019 Pan American Games, something she said was a protest against injustice in the US and the presidency of Donald Trump. On Saturday, the anthem started as Berry was on the podium after finishing third in the trials. While the music played, Berry placed her left hand on her hip and shuffled her feet. She took a turn, so she was facing the stands, not the flag. Toward the end of the anthem, she picked up her black T-shirt with the words “Activist Athlete” emblazoned on the front, and draped it over her head.
Berry believes it was no coincidence that she was front and center during the anthem. Unlike the Olympics, the anthem does not accompany medals ceremonies at the US trials. But the hammer throwers received their awards just before the start of the evening session, which has been kicking off all week with a video rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner played on the scoreboard. “I feel like it was a set-up, and they did it on purpose,” Berry said of the timing of the anthem. “I was pissed, to be honest.”
USA Track and Field spokeswoman Susan Hazzard said that “the national anthem was scheduled to play at 5.20pm. 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.” On Saturday, the music started at 5.25pm.
“They said they were going to play it before we walked out, then they played it when we were out there,” Berry said. “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’s third-place finish at the trials guarantees her a place at the Olympics and she has promised to use her position to raise awareness about social injustice in the US. “My purpose and my mission is bigger than sports,” she said. “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.”
Berry’s gesture drew virtually no reaction from the stands, and the winner of Saturday’s hammer trial, DeAnna Price, said she supported her teammate. “I think people should say whatever they want to say. I’m proud of her,” Price said.
Berry said she needs to get “my body right, my mind right and my spirit right” for the Olympics. The women’s hammer throw starts on 1 August in Tokyo. But she doesn’t think she needs to be on the podium in Tokyo to have an impact. “I don’t need to do anything sport-wise,” she said. “What I need to do is speak for my community, to represent my community and to help my community. Because that’s more important than sports.”
Berry’s demonstration at the 2019 Pan American Games led to a sanction, but ultimately pushed the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee to commit to not punishing athletes who raise fists or kneel at the trials or in Tokyo. It’s a potential flash point for Tokyo, where the IOC has said it will enforce its Rule 50 that bans demonstrations at events. It’s the same prohibition that meant sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos were sent home from the Mexico City Games in 1968.