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American Sam Mattis raises a fist at the Tokyo Games, which he hopes ‘sparks a conversation’

The United States women’s soccer team – along with teams from Great Britain, Japan, Chile, Sweden and New Zealand – took a knee to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

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TOKYO – Before American Sam Mattis emerged from the tunnel into National Stadium for the most important track and field meet of his life on Saturday night, the 27-year-old knew he would have a few seconds to send a message.

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Mattis has long been vocal about social issues, including during last summer’s nationwide racial reckoning, and so as it was time for him to take the field for the men’s discus final, he stared into a camera and took a bow. Then he raised his fist into the air.

“We’re having the Olympics, and it’s great that we can distract ourselves, but at the same time we athletes are people, and we’re part of this world, and there are a lot of problems facing this world,” Mattis said afterward. “So I think it was important to just speak out on that while I had a platform and some cameras on me for four or five seconds, and keep our focus on that even while we’re at the Olympic Games. I’m hoping that sparks a conversation.”

Mattis didn’t get a chance to make an appearance on the podium; he finished in eighth place on a night when he completed a season-best throw of 63.88 meters (209 feet 6.96 inches), but he joined a growing number of athletes who have demonstrated at the Games in Tokyo.

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The United States women’s soccer team – along with teams from Great Britain, Japan, Chile, Sweden and New Zealand – took a knee to support the Black Lives Matter movement. A gymnast from Costa Rica, Luciana Alvarado, took a knee and raised a fist during a floor routine.

American hammer thrower Gwen Berry, who qualified for the Olympic team at the U.S. track and field trials in June and turned away from the American flag as the national anthem was being played at the medal ceremony at the time. She has said she “won’t shut up.” She competes in the hammer throw qualifying round Friday.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics – Soccer Football – Women – Group E – Chile v Canada – Sapporo Dome, Sapporo, Japan – July 24, 2021. Kadeisha Buchanan of Canada, Nichelle Prince of Canada and Chile players take a knee before the match
Tokyo 2020 Olympics – Soccer Football – Women – Group E – Chile v Canada – Sapporo Dome, Sapporo, Japan – July 24, 2021. Kadeisha Buchanan of Canada, Nichelle Prince of Canada and Chile players take a knee before the match Photo by Kim Hong-Ji /Reuters

“I think progress is being made. I think the athletes are the ones who are to be congratulated for really continuing to remind that they are not just athletes, they are not just here to be cogs in the wheel. They are human beings,” Susanne Lyons, U.S. Olympic and Paralympic chair, said earlier this month. “In the case of our athletes, they’re American citizens who were raised on the value of the freedom of speech. We very much support our athletes’ right to speak, particularly on issues of racial and social justice, which has been such a tremendous issue of importance in our country over the last year or two.”

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It was clear then as it is clear now and always has been: we all have an obligation to demand and fight for justice

Mattis, who is Black, said in an interview earlier this year that the unrest during the summer of 2020 after the killing of George Floyd had impacted his training and that he wanted to encourage people to speak out in their communities.

“It was clear then as it is clear now and always has been: we all have an obligation to demand and fight for justice,” he said. Even after he qualified for his first Olympics, he made it clear that he wanted to use his voice in Tokyo, no matter how short the window was.

“I don’t know if I have one thing that I’ll remember about this experience. There’s a lot going on, right? We’re competing at the Olympics during a pandemic, and trying to not get sick and spread a virus but at the same time compete at our best,” he said. “And also at the same time, compete while we as athletes are being objectified and exploited for our labor a little bit. But we’re just trying to do our best.”

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