It’s the summer of 2019, and I’m representing Team USA at the Pan American Games in Peru.
I’d just won the hammer throw, which came down to the final throws, so initially I was riding high off that adrenaline. But by the time the medal ceremony came around, and I stepped up on that podium, something felt ... off. This was the biggest win of my career — if anything, I should’ve been extremely happy. But I wasn’t filled with pride to be standing at the top like I thought I’d be.
The thing is, the minute the national anthem started to play, I felt uneasy.
I’m on the podium, and I’m jittery. I’m swaying back and forth, the fatigue from the competition is finally catching up to me. And as I’m listening to the anthem, I'm in my head thinking about all of these things — the song’s history, what it really stands for and who it’s really speaking to. I’m thinking about Michael Brown, and Laquon McDonald, and Freddie Gray. I'm thinking about police brutality and cycles of violence and ... basically what it really costs to be Black in this country. Whether we really all have the same freedoms.
And eventually, I just think like, You know what? This song doesn’t speak for me. This anthem doesn’t represent me. It’s hypocritical.
I decided I was going to be true to myself. I wasn’t going to respect something that disrespects people who look like me.
So, when the song reached, “... the land of the free and the home of the brave,” I slowly raised my fist in the air.
I was put on probation for 12 months by the USOPC and the IOC for my protest. I was confused — and I was also enraged. I didn’t take away from anyone else on the podium. I didn’t attack anyone, and I didn’t disrespect anyone.
I used that moment, my moment, to let my voice be heard without having to say anything at all.
My own Olympic Committee didn’t fight for me. They just continued to enforce a rule that had silenced athletes for years. So, that was really, really hard to swallow. I felt like I was being punished for speaking up about something that has been swept under the rug for so long. And there was other backlash, too. I had to watch my career be defunded. I was losing financial support left and right, and if the racial justice organization Color Of Change had not stepped in to sponsor me, I would have been forced to quit the sport.
In the year that followed, however, I watched how quickly the world changed.
When George Floyd was killed by police in May 2020, it was like all of a sudden something clicked for people — something that they had maybe been ignoring their whole lives. It was like the world did a 180. People stopped and started paying attention to the issues that had always been there: police brutality, systemic racism, and the oppression of Black lives.
You know, the very things that were racing through my mind when I raised my fist that day in Lima.
All of a sudden, white America “woke up.” And all of sudden, I started receiving apologies. But I wasn’t bitter about it. I got to use my platform with Color Of Change to make sure that athletes like me weren’t going to be punished anymore for our activism.
When the USOPC finally changed its rule against protesting, allowing all Team USA athletes to respectfully demonstrate in support of racial and social justice, all I could feel was relief. My sacrifice had been worth it. The sacrifices of those before me, across sports, had been seen and respected. My voice had been heard.
Well, at least that’s what I thought.
All of a sudden, white America “woke up.” And all of sudden, I started receiving apologies.- Gwen Berry
Flash-forward to the Olympic trials this year, and all that fell apart quick.
After fighting to make the team, I finished in third place and secured my ticket to Tokyo. I wasn’t even thinking about any kind of controversy, because I had been told the national anthem would not play while I was on the podium. Then as soon as I walked up onto the platform … what did I hear?
Here’s where it gets a little complicated. At the trials, the national anthem isn’t played during all of the podium ceremonies — it only plays once a day at a prescheduled time — and on this particular day, I guess that just happened to be during the medal ceremony for the hammer throw. But I can’t lie, I definitely felt targeted. How could I not? Part of the reason they even changed the rule to allow for protests in Tokyo was because of everything that went down with me back in 2019. It felt weird, and it hurt me. I’m on the podium thinking, What should I do? Should I walk off? Should I leave? Should I step down?
We weren’t even at the real Games yet, so there weren't enough people in the stands to pay attention to any of it anyway. So instead of walking off I decided to stay there. I told myself to just chill. To breathe.
And as I’m trying to calm myself down, I’m turning each and every way. Just like in 2019, I’m jittery, trying to get my thoughts together, trying to contain my anger. But to the people watching on TV, because of the way the cameras were positioned, it looks like I'm intentionally turning my back on the flag.
Towards the end of the ceremony, I raised my Activist Athlete T-shirt in the air as a reminder to everyone of what I stand for. A reminder to my fellow U.S. track and field athletes, to the fans, to anyone watching at home, that I’m always going to speak out.
The backlash was pretty much immediate. It was like 2019 all over again. Conservative media was running all these stories like, GWEN BERRY TURNS BACK TO U.S. FLAG DURING NATIONAL ANTHEM AT OLYMPIC TRIALS. One story called me the “flag-snubbing U.S. Olympian.” Representative Dan Crenshaw called for my removal from the U.S. Olympic team.
Experiencing the uproar that followed was a lot. All of my social media platforms were flooded with support from my teammates and fans, as well as attacks from the ignorant and opposed.
I was actually in Houston when I saw Ted Cruz’s comments about me. And by the way, I found it very hypocritical because here he was talking about me not facing the flag, when he literally went on vacation to Mexico while Texas was in a state of emergency during the ice storm last February. (Yeah, we still remember that, Ted!! So you can’t talk to me. You want to talk about standing for a song and a flag, but you don’t even care about the people you swore to protect and govern. Worry about that.)
While his comments led to a lot of negative backlash from trolls, part of the reason I speak out is to make people uncomfortable. I really want people to pay attention not just to me, but also to what I stand for.
Being an Olympian, it’s not just about what I represent, but who I’m representing. Who I’m speaking for. Who I’m a reflection of. When I stand on that podium, I am a reflection of teenage mothers. I am a reflection of Black women. I am a reflection of everyone who has had to overcome poverty.
When you're a Black mother, the trauma of seeing the murders of young men like Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and countless others just hits you differently.
Knowing that my son, no matter how smart he is, no matter how bright he is, no matter how brilliant he is, there are people out there who will never, ever, ever see him as somebody who deserves to live and thrive in the world ... I know that any time I’m not around my son, he is at risk of being beaten, abused or even murdered by a system of white supremacy.
When I stand on that podium, I am a reflection of teenage mothers. I am a reflection of Black women. I am a reflection of everyone who has had to overcome poverty.- Gwen Berry
If you think those fears aren’t justified, if you still can’t see how Black lives are being targeted, then we obviously live in two separate Americas, or you’re willingly blind. I had to use my platform to speak on these issues because it doesn’t matter if I’m a two-time Olympian. It doesn’t matter that I’ve represented my country on international stages.
My country has shown me time and time again that it doesn't give a damn about my son. And it doesn’t give a damn about me.
So, yeah, the media can run with whatever narrative fits the agenda. Ted Cruz and whoever can turn this into their latest talking point. But this isn’t just a lil moment in the spotlight for me. I’m not looking for my 15 minutes of fame. I’d actually rather not have to deal with all this. Whatever you think about my protest ... listen, I’m just glad you’re thinking about it. That’s all I’m trying to do is raise people’s awareness and keep us on topic. Because as quickly as the world changed after George Floyd, it snapped back to normal. Police didn’t stop killing us, and as a country, we went back to business as usual. But Black people don’t have that same luxury, we can’t just turn the channel on the TV.
This is real life.
This is bigger than the Olympics. This shit is personal.
Things didn’t go how I wanted in Tokyo — I didn’t make it onto the podium. But seeing Raven, my close friend, get up there and call attention to intersectional injustices in the LGBTQ+ and Black community made me so proud. We actually talked before about things to do and ways we could really try to use our moments to bring about change. So to see it actually happening was everything.
Honestly, I couldn’t be more proud. I know I helped plant that seed, and her just being like a younger sister to me, I’m glad that I was able to influence her in a positive way.
And how was Raven treated, even after everything we’ve been through this past year, and all the supposed growth we’ve had in sports? She was put under investigation by the IOC. Literally ridiculous.
It just goes to show that the IOC is made up of a bunch of corporate monsters. Frankly, I think they’re full of shit. They are part of the problem. Somehow, they’re there to oversee everybody else, but there's nobody to oversee them. Nobody checks them, even though they got a whole list of scandals to their name. How can that be right or fair?
But regardless of how trifling the IOC is, I’m very grateful to be in a position where I can use my platform to amplify the truth.
If people hear the name Gwen Berry and immediately think of the national anthem drama — if I’m not remembered for anything else — that’s O.K. with me.
But while you’re thinking about that, I want you to ask yourself a simple question.
Think back to what was playing when I raised my first: “... the land of the free…..”
Ask yourself — after everything that’s happened, everything you’ve seen with your own eyes and everything you’ve heard about over the last couple years….
... Free for who?
I know the answer. Do you?