It was an inspiring victory; they set an Olympic and world record by cycling 750 m in 41 seconds less than the German runners-up. Tianshi had injured her knee last year and according to Cycling News, she said of her win: “It feels very good because for the last few years I’ve been feeling very, very bad, and I’ve had a lot of problems.”
But it wasn’t just the athletes’ prowess on the cycling track that captured everyone’s attention; it was their clothing. In the days since, the curious case of Bao Shanju and Zhong Tianshi turned into another test of Olympic officials’ commitment to political neutrality at the Games, ahead of the Winter Games in China next year.
After their victory, Shanju and Tianshi stepped onto the podium to receive their gold medals inside the Izu Veldrome in Shizuoka, Japan. They wore badges over their tracksuits that featured Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong, who founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
The badges were common in China during the Cultural Revolution, which Quartz’s Mary Hui describes as a “violent, decade-long campaign started by [Mao] in 1966 to purge society of perceived enemies of communism and to consolidate his grip on power” through “a pervasive culture of spying on and snitching out friends, family, and colleagues.”
They reemerged in the 1990s as a sign of “nostalgia, reverence for Mao, dissatisfaction with society, and fashion,” writes Bill Bishop, author of the popular newsletter Sinocism. In more recent years, under the leadership of Chinese president Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has sought to sanitize and reclaim the memory of Mao.
Because of this, Mao badges are controversial objects—especially for Olympians. That’s because wearing them may be perceived as a violation of Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter (pdf, p. 90), which bans all types of “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda…in any Olympic sites, venues, or other areas,” including during medal ceremonies. In a recent update to Rule 50 (pdf), the International Olympic Committee (IOC) clarified that the rules applies to athletes who display “any political messaging, including signs or armbands.”
Initially, the IOC said it asked the Chinese National Olympic Committee (NOC) to investigate the incident and determine whether it violated Rule 50. (Violations of the rule can lead to “disciplinary action…on a case-by-case basis as necessary.”)
On Aug. 8, the last day of the Tokyo Games, the IOC said it was satisfied with the explanation it received from China’s NOC about the incident. A spokesperson said it “received assurances that it will not happen again,” and “considers this case closed.”
Shanju and Tianshi are not the first athletes at Tokyo to be investigated for a possible Rule 50 violation. In fact, on the same day that they wore their Mao badges, US athlete Raven Saunders crossed her arms in the shape of an X after receiving a silver medal in the women’s shot put, a gesture she said was meant to represent “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.” (After a review, the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee said the gesture “was respectful of her competitors and did not violate our rules related to demonstration.”)
The IOC is increasingly coming under pressure to allow athletes greater freedom to express political messages unreservedly on Olympic platforms. With talk of a diplomatic boycott at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, this case was viewed by some observers as an important test of principle.
This story was updated to include the IOC’s decision on the two athletes’ case.