'It takes away from your focus' - Coghlan on the potential cost of protesting for Olympic athletes

The International Olympic Committee bans athletes from protesting at the Games.

Irish sporting legend Eamonn Coghlan.
Irish sporting legend Eamonn Coghlan.
Image: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

EAMONN COGHLAN SAYS that Olympic athletes who wish to protest as part of the Black Lives Matter movement could potentially risk losing focus on their performance by doing so.

The International Olympic Committee [IOC] does not permit athletes to engage in political protests, and recently announced that the ban is still in place for the Tokyo Games in 2021.

Other sporting organisations have allowed its athletes to protest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police, but the IOC’s stance remains the same.

1983 World Champion Coghlan says he raced with black athletes during his career and insists that he never encountered any racial issues between black and white athletes.

“We were all athletes, we were all friends, we all stood by one another,” he said.

“We helped one another, whether it was to book an airline seat for somebody or share a taxi rides. There was never any discrimination. There was never any black or white when it came to my sport.”

Coghlan was asked about his take on the IOC’s position, after recently publishing a photo of himself and former South African athlete, Sydney Maree from 1979. In a time of apartheid, Coghlan faced a potential lifetime ban if he ran in the same race as Maree.

At the time, Maree withdrew from ‘The Magnificent Mile’ in Philadelphia which was won by Coghlan. After his victory, Coghlan and Maree were pictured in a warm embrace which Sports Illustrated captioned ‘Hands Across The Chasm.’

When asked for his response to the IOC upholding its rule about prohibiting athletes from protesting at the postponed Tokyo Olympics next year, Coghlan said:

“They’re probably better off saying nothing at this particular point in time when they are talking about next year. It’s a year away and things could change.”

He went on to say that despite athletes having a desire to protest for movements like Black Lives Matter, it could hinder their performance at the Games. 

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“I think it probably would cause a bit of a problem. You can verbally support the Black Lives Matter if you want but if you take a uniform stance and try to get all the other athletes into it it just takes away from what you are actually trying to achieve.

It takes away from your mental energy, from your physical energy, it takes away from your focus on your sport if you start to get caught up in the movement.

“And I really think that the athletes who are on the line for making it into a final are going to be focusing more on the sport than thinking about using their position to support some kind of cause.”

Coghlan says that athletes will always be asked for their views on different causes and social issues but feels that “there’s another element out there in the United States of America that’s driving this and forcing athletes into giving an opinion, and in turn creating a media hype.”

Over the last few weeks, various black Irish athletes have spoken about their experiences with racism, including Gina Akpe-Moses and Nadia Power.

When asked if there’s an onus on athletes to voice their opinions and affect change on such matters, Coghlan said: “In modern society yes, perhaps they can make a point, and for me as a position that I am as a former athlete, being asked these questions right now, I would take a stance.

And I suppose the stance I took back 41 years ago was to be able to go and hug and shake hands with Sydney Maree and tell him, ‘Hey Sydney, I love ya, you’re one of us guys, we support you all the way through this’.

“And the same would go to this very same day, if I found some of my colleagues in athletics, black athletes in particular, were being given a hard time because of their colour, I would have no problem being out there supporting them and protesting on their behalf.

Eamonn Coghlan was speaking at the launch of the Irish Life Health Mile Challenge. The weeklong challenge to find out the fittest and most active club and county starts on 17 August. 

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