American shot putter Raven Saunders made the first podium protest of the Olympic Games on Sunday after claiming silver in her event. The 25-year-old athlete crossed her arms in an ‘X’ gesture during the medal ceremony at the Olympic Stadium as the other medallists posed for photos.
Saunders, who is Black and an outspoken supporter of LGBTQ rights, said her gesture represented “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.” After winning her event’s silver medal, she said she wanted to give light to “people all around the world who are fighting and don’t have the platform to speak up for themselves”.
“I’m part of a lot of communities,” added Saunders, who has never shied away from speaking about her challenges with depression. At Sunday’s event, China’s Gong Lijiao won gold, and New Zealand’s Valerie Adams took home the bronze. Saunders, after winning her medal, twerked and performed another dance for the cameras.
Her ‘X’ protest is the first test of International Olympic Committee (IOC) rules which ban protests of any kind on the medal podium at the Games. The IOC relaxed its ban on protests ahead of the Games, allowing athletes to “express their views” during news conferences. It said it is looking into the gesture Saunders made on the podium.
“We’re in contact with US Olympic and Paralympic Committee and with World Athletics,” said IOC spokesman Mark Adams on Monday, according to CNN. “I don’t want to say what those next steps would be until we fully understand what is going on. We don’t want to pre-empt anything.”
“We try to respect the views of all the athletes; we’ve given them more opportunity to express themselves. Freedom of expression in press conferences, social media, mixed zone. We’ve created possibilities before the sport begins to make protests.
“But one thing we have noted is we did a survey with 3,500 athletes (and) all those who answered wanted to protect the field of play. It would be good if everyone could respect the views of athletes.”
Saunders, in a reply to a tweet about her gesture, said: “Let them try and take this medal. I’m running across the border even though I can’t swim.”
Before her podium gesture, Saunders had already gained fame thanks to her green and purple hair. She is also known for her eye-catching collection of masks, inspired by the Marvel Comics character the Hulk. She sees the Marvel superhero as her alter ego.
The athlete was given the nickname “Hulk” while in high school. After a basketball coach urged her to take up shot put as a teenager, she won a state championship in her first year and went on to become an indoor and outdoor NCAA champion in college, CNN reported.
Saunders made her Olympic debut in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 at the age of 20. Between the Rio Games and Tokyo, the athlete said she almost took her own life in 2018 as she suffered from depression. She contacted a former therapist for support. “It’s okay to be strong,” she said of her challenges. “And it’s okay to not be strong 100% of the time. It’s okay to be able to need people.”
Currently, Saunders’ aim is to help people who are struggling with their mental health to get the needed support. “My message is to keep fighting, keep pushing, keep finding value in yourself, in everything you do,” she said after winning her silver medal.
“It means a lot to be able to walk away with a silver medal because I do represent so many people. I know there are so many people that have been looking up to me, so many people that have messaged me, so many people that have been praying for me.
“I’m happy I get to bring this back for them, not just myself.”
The mental health of athletes has been the story of this year’s Games after Team USA’s gymnastics star Simone Biles withdrew from several disciplines citing her mental health.
Earlier this year, a short documentary about Saunders’ journey with depression was released. “For everything I’ve been through mental health-wise, injuries, you know, everything like that … being able to really invest everything I’ve had mentally and physically and to be able to walk away with a medal, and be able to go out here and really inspire so many people … I really just hope that I can continue to inspire and motivate,” she said recently about her tough personal battle.