(WASHINGTON) — As the 2021 Olympic trials pick up speed, so has political controversy surrounding them — with some Republicans attacking the Biden White House for defending one Olympian they want removed from Team USA.
Gwen Berry, who turns 32 Tuesday, earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic track and field team after her performance in the hammer-throw over the weekend at trials in Eugene, Ore., but faced away from the American flag and toward the stands when the national anthem was played, sparking both outrage and praise on social media.
The anthem had been played at the start of evening events, but on Saturday, it began while Berry was still on the podium after being awarded her bronze medal. Having taken her activism to the field in the past, Berry later said she felt she’d been “set-up” and said she was told the anthem would be played before the medalists took the podium.
At one point, in the scorching temperatures exceeding 100 degrees, she held up a black T-shirt over her head which read, “Activist Athlete.”
“I feel like it was a set-up, and they did it on purpose,” Berry told the Associated Press. “I was pissed, to be honest.” An official has suggested the timing was purely coincidental.
After facing backlash on social media, Berry said her critics illustrate that some in America “rally patriotism over basic morality” and that even after what many deemed a racial reckoning last year, she said, “sentiments regarding black lives were just a hoax.”
“I never said I hated this country! People try to put words in my mouth but they can’t. That’s why I speak out. I LOVE MY PEOPLE,” she said in a another tweet early Monday.
Asked on Monday whether President Joe Biden believed Berry’s action were appropriate for an athlete representing the U.S. at the Olympics, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said she hadn’t spoken to Biden about Berry specifically but knew he’d defend the athlete’s actions.
“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.”
In March, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee said athletes competing in the trials were permitted to take part in “respectful demonstrations on the topic of racial and social justice,” and cited holding up a fist or kneeling during the national anthem as examples of acceptable demonstrations.
But her move has drawn outrage from conservative outlets questioning why Biden hasn’t condemned Berry’s actions from GOP senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas.
“If Ms. Berry is so embarrassed by America, then there’s no reason she needs to compete for our country. She should be removed from the Olympic team,” Cotton told Fox News Monday.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, also said to Fox News that it was “one thing” for NBA players to protest the national anthem but that Berry, an Olympian, should not compete.
“The entire point of the Olympic team is to represent the United States of America. That’s the entire point, OK?” Crenshaw said. “That should be the bare minimum requirement, is that you believe in the country you’re representing.”
Berry responded to Crenshaw’s criticism with another tweet, saying, “At this point, y’all are obsessed with me.”
Joining a slew of supporters on social media praising what many are calling a “powerful” photo, at least one prominent Republican has come to Berry’s defense.
Joe Walsh, a former GOP candidate for president and “Never Trumper,” said it a tweet, retweeted by Berry, that she “believes systemic racism is still a big problem in this country. She wants America to be better. That doesn’t sound like someone who ‘despises’ America.”
Omekongo Dibinga, a professor of cross-cultural communications at American University, who supported Berry on Twitter, told ABC News he would advise the Olympian to “hold her head high.”
“The fact of the matter is that too many want Black athletes to shut up and play for their entertainment but say nothing about real life issues that affect them,” he said.
“Her response should be to keep playing, keep raising awareness, and keep celebrating this country by calling it out to be as good as its promise,” Dibinga added. “Other countries envy her ability to be able to make that peaceful statement.”
On the podium at the 2019 Pan American Games, Berry raised her fist to protest social injustices and former President Donald Trump. The action put her on probation for one year by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, losing her sponsorships at the time. The committee apologized to Berry for the reprimand in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
“She loses money when she does this, but her mind is on justice,” Dibinga added of her activism. “Berry is showing the next generation that principles are more important than profits.”
Berry, who became a mother to her son at age 15, was a top athlete in high school and got a scholarship to college before becoming a world-record holder in the hammer throw. While training for the Olympics in 2016, she worked at Dick’s Sporting Goods by day and at Insomnia Cookies by night to help support her extended family in Missouri.
She has said the 2014 death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, in Ferguson, where she grew up, contributes to her activism.
She’s now slated to go to Tokyo with Team USA for her second Olympics, where women’s hammer throwing starts swinging on Aug. 1. Unlike the trials, protests and demonstrations are banned at the games under Rule 50.
Still, Berry has vowed to use her platform to continue to raise awareness about social injustice in America.
“Me being able to represent my communities and my people and those who have died at the hands of police brutality, those who have died to this systemic racism, I feel like that’s the important part,” Berry said Saturday. “That’s why I’m going. And that’s why I was here today.”
Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.