TOKYO — The image of Communist China’s founding leader, Mao Zedong, made an unscheduled appearance at the Tokyo Olympics, and the International Olympic Committee said Tuesday it is “looking into the matter.”
The gesture — Mao pin badges worn by two Chinese gold medalists at their medal ceremony — risks being judged a breach of Olympic Charter Rule 50, which prohibits political statements on the podium at the Tokyo Games — and at the upcoming 2022 Beijing Winter Games.
After winning the women’s sprint in track cycling Monday, Bao Shanju and Zhong Tianshi wore pin badges of Mao. The communist leader who proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 remains an iconic figure in China 45 years after his death in 1976.
The incident came one day after American shot-put silver medalist Raven Saunders crossed the wrists of her raised arms on the podium. She was standing next to the gold medalist from China.
It was unclear Tuesday if the Mao pins were a response to the shot-put medal ceremony.
“We have contacted the Chinese Olympic Committee, asked them for a report about the situation,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said at the daily news conference at the Tokyo Games.
Badges showing Mao’s profile were worn by hundreds of millions of people in the 1960s to show their loyalty to the Communist Party chairman and the ultra-radical Cultural Revolution he launched in 1966. China’s current party chief, Xi Jinping, has invoked Mao’s image as he tries to promote his own status as a history-making Chinese leader.
At a July 1 event, Xi appeared on Tiananmen Square in central Beijing in a gray Mao jacket identical to one worn by the former leader in a nearby portrait overlooking the square. Other party leaders at the same event dressed in blue business suits.
The IOC has publicized its president Thomas Bach’s regular calls with Xi ahead of the Beijing Olympics opening in February, which human rights activists have tried to brand the “Genocide Games” because of the government’s treatment of Muslim minority Uyghur people in China’s northwest.
At a Tokyo Olympics, where athlete activists were expected to draw attention, Saunders pushed at the limits of Rule 50 by crossing her wrists to make the shape of an X. ”It’s the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet,” Saunders said when asked to explain it.
Saunders turned toward photographers at the Olympic Stadium to make the gesture seconds after she stood facing the Chinese flag during the national anthem playing for Gong Lijiao. The U.S. Olympic body is taking no action against Saunders, who it said late Monday “was respectful of her competitors and did not violate our rules related to demonstration.“
The IOC has asked U.S. team officials for more details, Adams said Tuesday, adding it noted public opinion in the case. There has been wide support for Saunders, who is Black and gay.
Saunders said at the Olympic track her aim was “to show younger people that no matter how many boxes they try to fit you in, you can be you and you can accept it.”
The IOC has long claimed it is politically neutral and must maintain that stance to allow more than 200 national teams to arrive and compete at an Olympic Games as equals. Still, the rule prohibiting all athlete protests in Olympic venues was eased slightly in the weeks before the opening ceremony in Tokyo where athletes were expected to test its limits.
Gestures and statements are now allowed inside the field of play at the start line or before a game, though not during competition or at medal ceremonies. Several women’s soccer teams, for example, kneeled on the field before kickoff on the first day of Olympic action on July 21.
The Mao pins, though, were an unexpected twist on the Rule 50 debate. The wearing of such badges declined after 1970 due to complaints producing them used up scarce supplies of metal required by Chinese industry. The original Cultural Revolution-era ones are sought after by collectors, both in China and in the West.
Mao images became popular again in the 1990s to express complaints that ordinary Chinese gained too little from wrenching economic changes that caused inflation and layoffs at state companies.