U.S. Olympic Committee Announces Formation of New Athlete-Led Group to 'Empower Black Voices'

"All Team USA athletes who are interested in participating are welcome," the U.S. Olympic Committee CEO said

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee are trying to do better for their athletes.

Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, announced the creation of an athlete-led group this week that will help to "empower black voices" in the wake of nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd.

"This week I have heard from hundreds of you as you bravely shared your stories, offered suggestions for progress, demanded changes, and asked how you can help end racism and discrimination against Black Americans," Hirshland wrote in the letter to athletes. "The pain experienced by Black athletes and by the Black community – in recent weeks and for far too long before the murder of George Floyd – is unconscionable."

Floyd tragically died on May 25 when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes. In the weeks since, protests and demonstrations have blanketed the country, calling for an end to police brutality and systemic racism.

Calling black athletes' courage "inspirational," Hirshland continued in her letter, "For decades you have spoken about equality and unity and sacrificed your moment on the podium to call for change. And we have failed to listen and tolerated racism and inequality. I am sorry. You deserve better. You matter. Black Lives Matter."

"It is time to match your courage. To listen and to understand. To do the work," she said. "To accept that addressing racial injustice is everyone’s concern, every day. To remove the barriers, to change the rules, and to empower Black voices to be heard."

The group will "challenge the rules and systems in our own organization that create barriers to progress, including your right to protest. We will also advocate for change globally. All Team USA athletes who are interested in participating are welcome."

The committee promised to "continue to listen" and "evolve."

In a previous letter to athletes, Hirshland wrote that the USOPC condemned the "systemic inequality that disproportionately impacts Black Americans in the United States. It has no place in ours or any other community."

The creation of the group follows criticism from some Olympic athletes, including Gwen Berry, who competed in the 2016 Games in the hammer throw.

After winning the gold medal at the 2018 Pan Am Games, Berry raised a clenched fist on the winners' stand to protest racial injustice. She was subsequently put on probation for 12 months, and also warned that she would be punished further if she protested again.

In an interview with The Nation last week, Berry called the USOPC's initial statement "hypocritical."

"It’s really a smack in the face because I’ve lost so much because of how they did not support me; of how they made it seem that I basically did something that was bad, even though it was peaceful," she said. "I didn’t cause any altercations. There was nothing that I did wrong. All I did was speak out about who I stand with, what I stand for, and how I felt."

The current wave of protests have left Berry feeling "vindicated, though, she told The Nation.

"It helped me to go out there and support my people, and march with my people, and protest," she said. "I’m pretty ecstatic right now. ... I just hope that everyone keeps the momentum going. We have to come up with ideas, we have to strategize, we have to plan, and we have to keep the momentum going."

The 2020 Summer Olympic Games have, of course, been postponed until next July due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

•Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.

ColorofChange.org works to make government more responsive to racial disparities.

•National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help black youth succeed in college and beyond.

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