During the medal ceremony for the U.S. track and field Olympic trials, Gwen Berry, Olympian and third-place finisher in the hammer throw on Saturday, turned away from the flag as the national anthem played.
Berry, who earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic hammer-throwing team this weekend in Eugene, Ore., told the Associated Press she felt she’d been “set up” after being told the anthem would play before medalists walked out to the podium for the award ceremony.She turned, placed her hand on her hip, and near the end of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” held up a T-shirt reading “Activist Athlete” and draped it over her head.
“They said they were going to play it before we walked out, then they played it when we were out there,” Berry said.
According to USA Track and Field spokesperson Susan Hazzard, the national anthem had been scheduled to play at 5:20 p.m. that day. The music did not start until 5:25.
“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,” she said.
Berry’s protest was addressed at Monday’s White House news conference, where press secretary Jen Psaki answered a question from a reporter regarding whether President Biden believed Berry’s actions were appropriate for an athlete representing the U.S. at the Olympics.
“I know (Biden) is incredibly proud to be an American and has great respect for the anthem and all that it represents,” Psaki said. “He would also say that part of that pride in our country means recognizing there are moments where we, as a country, haven’t lived up to our highest ideals, and means respecting the right of people granted in the Constitution to peacefully protest.”
On Twitter, Berry posted a picture of herself turned away from the flag during the national anthem with the caption, “Stop playing with me.”
She repeated the line and photo on her Instagram, writing, “I said what I said… I mean what I said. STOP PLAYING WITH ME!! PERIOD!”
The unplanned protest has drawn significant criticism on social media, including from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former U.S. Department of Education Press Secretary Angela Morabito, and Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas, who called for Berry’s removal from the Olympic team.
Berry has used her platform to protest before. On the podium for her gold medal at the 2019 Pan-American Games in Lima, Peru, the athlete threw her fist in the air during the national anthem. At the time, the move cost her sponsorships and got her suspended for 12 months.
This year, the trials have allowed “respectful demonstrations on the topic of racial and social justice,” according to an open letter to athletes by U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland.
Berry will go on to Tokyo with the U.S. team for her second Olympics, where protests and demonstrations are banned under Rule 50.