Gwen Berry won a humanitarian award Wednesday for raising social justice issues in the United States — a journey that began in 2019 when she raised her fist on the medals stand at the Pan-Am Games during the national anthem.
Berry, the 31-year-old hammer thrower, won the Toyota Humanitarian Award, given annually by USA Track and Field, for her role in the debate about social inequality on and off the playing field over the past 16 months.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee placed Berry on probation for her actions after winning a gold medal in August 2019. Berry was an outspoken skeptic of the USOPC when it took steps to deal with social injustice issues in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in May.
Berry has consulted with the USOPC but declined a spot on athlete-led committees that were formed to tackle some of the issues, including the federation’s stance on controversial Rule 50, which bars protests at the Olympics.
Still, Berry says she will not stand by quietly at the Olympics next year.
“I am an American, but I can honestly say I’m not proud of things this country stands for, and we can do better,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I want to represent people who cannot represent themselves and I want to speak for people who can’t speak for themselves.”
For winning the award, Berry gets $10,000 to distribute to charities of her choice. The beneficiaries are all schools that encourage minority students: Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom School (New York), New Era Prep (South Florida) and Scholars Education Centre (New Orleans).
Berry captured headlines for making the same gesture in Lima that John Carlos and Tommie Smith made in 1968 at the Mexico City Games. Carlos and Smith got sent home; the USOPC sent Berry a letter of reprimand.
Not until Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis sparked social unrest across America over the summer did the USOPC appear to get serious about spearheading change. Dozens of athletes have been meeting over the past several months to come up with solutions the U.S. might ask for from the IOC, which has appointed its own athletes committee to discuss Rule 50 and related issues.
Berry says both organizations “have a long way to go.”
“The USOPC should be at the forefront of social injustice issues because the majority of their athletes are Black and the majority have faced racial discrimination,” she said. “I’d say it’s time for them to be at the forefront, and time for them to put their money where their mouth is.”