What to Know About the Debate Surrounding Olympian Gwen Berry’s National Anthem Protest

After placing third at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, hammer thrower Gwen Berry turned away from the flag during the National Anthem. Here's why she made a statement.

By Lindsay Weinberg Jun 29, 2021 11:27 PMTags
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Gwen Berry, who will represent the U.S. at the Tokyo Olympics, has sparked a debate about peaceful protests over her reaction to the National Anthem. 

At the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, held in Oregon over the weekend, the 32-year-old hammer thrower placed third and cemented her spot at the Olympics this summer. While accepting her bronze medal on the tiered podium, "The Star-Spangled Banner" began to play. 

Berry turned away from the flag, toward the crowd, and put her hand on her hip. She then placed a black T-shirt reading "Activist Athlete" over her head and looked down at her feet.

The next day, Berry posted a photo of her defiant pose on Twitter and captioned it, "Stop playing with me."

The Missouri native explained her stance to the Associated Press, saying, "My purpose and my mission is bigger than sports... I'm here to represent those... who died due to systemic racism. That's the important part. That's why I'm going. That's why I'm here today."

Her protest appears to have been spontaneous, as Berry said she didn't expect to hear the anthem while celebrating her victory. She told the outlet that she thought the anthem would play before she walked out. 

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"Then they played it when we were out there," the athlete shared. "But I don't really want to talk about the anthem because that's not important. The anthem doesn't speak for me. It never has."

According to the 2019 Pan American Games Champion, "I feel like it was a set-up, and they did it on purpose... I was pissed, to be honest."

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USA Track and Field spokeswoman Susan Hazzard told the AP that the National Anthem was scheduled to play at 5:20 p.m. "We didn't wait until the athletes were on the podium for the hammer throw awards. The National Anthem is played every day according to a previously published schedule," she said.

During the track and field trials on Saturday, June 26, the music started at 5:25 p.m., per the outlet. 

Political pundits and social media users alike had a lot to say about Berry's reaction to the anthem. Meghan McCain addressed the moment during The View on Tuesday, June 29, per Decider.

"Excuse me if I don't think these athletes are representing America in the same way, and for some of us, I will die for this," McCain said on air. "I will die on this hill. It is not appropriate or patriotic to go to a foreign country where you're supposed to be representing America and act like it's just about you. It's not about you. It's about all of us."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki was also asked about Berry on Monday, June 28. She said that President Joe Biden has "great respect for the anthem, and all that it represents," but he also believes it "means recognizing there are moments where we as a country haven't lived up to our highest ideals, and it means respecting the right of people, granted to them in the Constitution, to peacefully protest," per NBC News.

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Racial justice organization Color Of Change praised the Olympian's leadership on Twitter, writing that they're "proud" to sponsor her and will "continue to push corporations to support Black athletes who speak out for our communities," adding, "Grateful for Gwen's leadership today and every day."

Olympian sprinter Morolake Akinosun also showed her support. "Gwen, you got so much love coming from me," she shared.

Berry retweeted a fan that wrote, "I STAND with @MzBerryThrows all the way. The national anthem doesn't include us. Being a Black girl from [St. Louis] as well, I salute you sis! Clapping hands sign Thank you for taking your stand."

Some social media users drew comparisons to the protests of former NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who famously sat and knelt during the National Anthem before football games. "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media in 2016.

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