Gwen Berry turned away from the American flag and raised a T-shirt over her face as the national anthem played Saturday, minutes after she qualified for the Olympic team at the U.S. track and field trials in Eugene, Ore. Berry has demonstrated on the podium before, but her impromptu protest Saturday came only after what she called a “setup” by meet officials.
Berry said she had no expectation to protest after she finished third in the hammer throw – and in fact did not even think the national anthem would be played. The song is played only once a night at the trials, not during every medal ceremony as at the Olympics. Afterward, she said an official told her the anthem would be played before she took the podium and posed for pictures.
“I feel like it was setup,” Berry said with a burst of laughter. “I feel like they did that on purpose, and I was pissed, to be honest. I was thinking about what should I do. Eventually, I just stayed there and just swayed. I put my shirt over my head. It was real disrespectful. I know they did that on purpose, but it’ll be all right. I see what’s up.”
Berry has been a pivotal figure in the discussion over protest at Olympic and international events. At the 2019 Pan-American Games in Peru, Berry raised her fist while standing atop the podium. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee placed her on probation for one year for violating Rule 50, the International Olympic Committee regulation that prohibits political protest. Last summer, the USOPC publicly and privately apologized to Berry. This year, it changed its rules to allow protest at domestic events.
Berry still wants to use her voice to advocate for Black communities she feels have been wronged by police brutality and systemic racism. But Saturday night, she had no intention of hearing, much less protesting, the anthem.
“It really wasn’t a message,” Berry said. “I didn’t want to be up there. I felt like it was a setup. I was hot. I was ready to get my pictures and get to some shade.”
When the anthem played, Berry swayed next to the podium, a bronze medal around her neck and a bouquet of flowers in her hands. Fellow Olympic qualifiers DeAnna Price and Brooke Andersen stood on the top two steps. Berry held up a black T-shirt that read “Activist Athlete.”
“It was funny because they said they were going to play it before we walked out,” Berry said. “It just happened they played it when we were out there. So, you know, it’s OK. I really don’t want to talk about the anthem because that’s not important. The anthem don’t speak for me. It never has.”
The national anthem started playing at 5:20 local time in Eugene, roughly the same time it has been played on other nights of the trials. A USA Track and Field official suggested the timing with Berry’s podium ceremony was coincidental.
Although Berry said she did not anticipate protesting Saturday, she remains committed to her using sport to advance her cause.
“It’s really important for me and my community just to be able to represent,” Berry said. “I think sports is a distraction. Sports is entertainment. But my purpose and my voice and mission is bigger than the sport. So me being able to represent my communities and my people and those who have died at the hands of police brutality, those who have died to this systemic racism, I feel like that’s the important part. That’s why I’m going. And that’s why I was here today.”
Berry will be on a larger stage at the Tokyo Olympics. This weekend, Olympics-focused website Inside the Games reported the IOC is considering allowing some forms of protest at certain times.
“I feel like that’s not enough,” Berry said. “It’s our sacrifice. It’s our podium. It’s our moment. So we should be able to protest whatever we want. It’s not for them to decide.”
Berry secured her second Olympic bid with a throw of 241 feet 2 inches. It has been a whirlwind five years for Berry, who said she lost sponsors after her 2019 protest and thought she may have to leave the sport before Color of Change, an advocacy group, backed her.
Berry has said she will not back down in Tokyo, regardless of the rules in place. She has not decided how she will demonstrate.
“When I get there,” Berry said, smiling, “I’ll figure out something to do.”