Dina Asher-Smith, the golden girl of British sprinting, has warned Olympics chiefs against punishing her or any other athlete if they take the knee on the podium in Tokyo.
With the troubled Games opening on Friday, the International Olympic Committee also faces mounting pressure from decorated former medalists to abandon a divisive ban on political displays.
The IOC had softened competition rules in recent weeks to allow Team GB women footballers to follow the England football team in making the gesture against racism pre-match.
However, it has maintained its resolve to potentially punish medal winners, with national bodies being told that the podium remains sacrosanct.
Asher-Smith, a leading British hope for a silver medal or better on the track, hit back on Thursday by claiming it would be "unenforceable" and organisers would be "shooting themselves in the foot".
"When it comes to people’s voices there’s very little you can control," she said. "When people feel strongly about something, particularly when it’s something that’s so close to your heart – particularly for me that topic would be racism, as a black woman you think about racism – I just think you can’t police people’s voice on that."
The gesture of taking the knee has been divisive in sport for months, with England football fans sparking controversy during Euro 2020 by booing the gesture.
The IOC established its Rule 50 guidelines around five months before the death of George Floyd in America and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement.
"No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas," the rule initially stipulated.
Asher-Smith, who stopped short of declaring whether she would take the knee if she medals in Tokyo, said the rule is "an incredibly difficult thing to do". She drew comparisons with 1968 when American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the medal stand at Mexico.
American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the medal stand at Mexico, 1968
"Some of the Olympics’ most iconic moments have been the black power salute by Tommie Smith wayback when, that is something people remember the Olympics for, something they’re very proud to see at the Olympic Games," she added. "So to think they’re suddenly going to get up and say ‘absolutely not’, I think they’d be shooting themselves in the foot."
The IOC has not clarified how demonstrating athletes would be punished other than saying they would face disciplinary action. But Asher-Smith, the 25-year-old world 200 metres champion, added: "I see protesting and expressing yourself as a fundamental human right."
Four-time gold medalist rower, Sir Matthew Pinsent, also appeared to oppose the rule on Thursday as he shared a story about Germany women’s hockey captain, Nike Lorenz, wearing a rainbow-coloured band on her socks to support gay rights. "The IOC has been consistently ‘behind the curve’ on this subject for decades," he added. "There are nuances but bluntly the athletes are taking the lead here in Tokyo."
IOC president Thomas Bach, already facing criticism for pushing the Games through despite mounting concern over Covid risk to the Japanese public, had last week warned athletes against “political demonstrations” on the podium.
As a result, double American gold medalist Edwin Moses; Leila Ali, the daughter of Muhammad Ali, along with Carlos and Smith, joined 150 campaigners and academics in signing a letter to Mr Bach on Thursday. "Today, we are adding our voice to global collective efforts calling for amendments to IOC Rule 50/IPC Section 2.2 to centre a commitment to human rights, racial justice, and social inclusion in the Olympic and Paralympic Movements," the letter says.