US hammer thrower Gwen Berry sparked controversy after she turned away from the American flag on Saturday while on the podium for a medal ceremony at the US Olympic trials. She later said that she was "pissed" as it was "disrespectful" to play 'The Star Spangled Banner' while she took a bronze medal.
As the anthem played at the trials in Eugene, Oregon, Berry placed her left hand on her hip and shuffled her feet. Berry's actions have been criticized by several. The 31-year-old has a long history of activism and this was just one of them in recent times.
On Saturday, Berry was on the podium after finishing third in the trials. Just when the music played and the national anthem started, she placed her left hand on her hip and shuffled her feet. Berry then took a turn. So she was facing the stands, not the flag.
While the music was still being played, she then picked up her black T-shirt with the words "Activist Athlete" emblazoned on the front, and draped it over her head. Berry believes it was no coincidence that she was front and center during the anthem.
"I feel like it was a set-up, and they did it on purpose," said Berry, who is an outspoken activist on racial justice issues. "I was pissed, to be honest."
"They had enough opportunities to play the national anthem before we got up there," Berry said in Oregon, where the trials are being held. "I was thinking about what I should do. Eventually I stayed there and I swayed, I put my shirt over my head. It was real disrespectful," she added.
Unlike the Olympics, the national anthem does not accompany medals ceremonies at the US trials. However, the hammer throwers received their awards just before the start of the evening session, which has been kicking off all week with a video rendition of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' played on the scoreboard.
"It really wasn't a message. I didn't really want to be up there. Like I said, it was a setup. I was hot, I was ready to take my pictures and get into some shade," added Berry.
"They said they were going to play it before we walked out, then they played it when we were out there," Berry said. "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."
Her Way of Protest
A USA Track and Field rep disputed Berry's characterization of the anthem playing. "The national anthem was scheduled to play at 5:20 pm today," said spokeswoman Susan Hazzard. "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."
Berry's gesture drew virtually no reaction from the stands initially but later rankled many Americans, who posted their displeasure on social media. However, the winner of Saturday's hammer trial, DeAnna Price, said she supported her teammate. "I think people should say whatever they want to say. I'm proud of her," Price said.
That said, Berry has a long history of activism and raised her fist as 'The Star-Spangled Banner' ended when she won gold at the 2019 Pan American Games. At that time she had said that it a kind of protest against injustice in the US and the presidency of Donald Trump.
The athlete was also suspended for 12 months by the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) for her gesture at the Pan American Games. However, this time, she may not face any action. The USOPC in March reversed its stance and said that athletes competing in the US Olympic trials can protest, including kneeling or raising a clenched fist on the podium or at the start line during the national anthem.
Berry has promised to use her position to keep raising awareness about social injustices in her home country. "My purpose and my mission is bigger than sports," Berry said. "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."