Off the fence: why I took a knee

  • Making a stand: Race Imboden of the United States takes a knee as team-mates Mick Itkin and Gerek Meinhardt stand on the podium after winning the gold medal in the menís team foil at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru (Photograph by Jose Sotomayor/Lima 2019 News Services/AP)

    Making a stand: Race Imboden of the United States takes a knee as team-mates Mick Itkin and Gerek Meinhardt stand on the podium after winning the gold medal in the menís team foil at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru (Photograph by Jose Sotomayor/Lima 2019 News Services/AP)

  • Race Imboden

    Race Imboden

Five days ago in Lima, Peru, I stood at the top of an awards podium with my team-mates and received a gold medal for fencing in the 2019 Pan American Games. The room wasnít crowded, there werenít all that many cameras flashing, and there certainly werenít a million fans tuned in to watch us from back home ó I love my sport, but we fencers know we donít draw the same audience as football, soccer, boxing or track and field.

But at the podium, my palms wet from nerves, when The Star-Spangled Banner began to play, I took a knee ó following in the footsteps of Colin Kaepernick, Megan Rapinoe, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith: black, LGBT, female and Muslim athletes who chose to take a stand.

Iím not a household name like those heroes, but as an athlete representing my country and, yes, as a privileged white man, I believed it was time to speak up for American values that my country seems to be losing sight of.

Iíve been honoured to represent my country in international competition, and every time I hear our national anthem played, itís a moment of personal pride. I love my country, full stop. When I look around, though, I see racial injustice, sexism, hate-inspired violence and scapegoating of immigrants. This isnít new, but it feels like itís getting worse, and after the mass killings in El Paso and Dayton, I knew I wanted to use that moment on the podium to send a message that things have to change.

And I believe that, speaking up and demanding this change, this isnít just the responsibility of women and minorities. Itís time that those of us privileged enough not to be personally targeted by this kind of hate, whether weíre athletes or not, start speaking out.

Carlos and Smith were suspended from competition; Ali was stripped of his titles and almost sent to prison; Kaepernick was blacklisted from the NFL; Rapinoe was singled out for criticism by the President. They used their platforms to demand that their country do better, sometimes at great personal sacrifice. So, before I took a knee, I asked myself the same question that a lot of people have tweeted and e-mailed me in the past few days: who is this white guy and why does he think heís earned the right to talk about sacrifice?

Good question.

Iím a privileged, white male athlete. Iíve worked hard to succeed in my sport and represent the United States on the worldís biggest stages. Iím a world champion like Rapinoe and an Olympic medal-winner like Ali, Carlos and Smith. But Iím not a sports icon. Even as I risk my lifeís work and the thing that brings me true joy ó Pan-Am Games rules prohibit political demonstrations ó I recognise that, to many, my sacrifice doesnít compare to others whoíve spoken out before. And I understand why. Before I knelt, though, I thought about the responsibility I have.

I hoped to speak to my small group of followers on social media and maybe change a few minds. I hoped that if a few of those who respect me as a competitor thought about the risk I was taking by bending the rules a year before the Olympics, they might reflect on the urgent need to begin healing some of the division in our world.

Iíve received a lot of criticism, and a lot of support, as well. My Twitter timeline and my inbox have been flooded with messages of support and love from people who were thankful that I spoke up. And Iím thankful that my message was heard: ďRacism, gun control, mistreatment of immigrants, and a president who spreads hate are at the top of a long listĒ of problems that need to be addressed. Itís my version of the message sent by Kaepernick. And itís pretty much the same message sent by my Pan Am Games team-mate, Gwen Berry, when she raised her fist after winning the hammer throw competition.

In my case, though, you didnít see a superstar. You didnít see a woman or minority athlete speaking up. Instead, you saw a white man you never heard of before, in a sport you may not know anything about.

For some Americans, this time, maybe you saw yourself. Someone who looks like you, kneeling there on a podium, calling for change. A lot of people have expressed disgust and hatred, confused that someone like me, of all people, would take a knee during the anthem: you must want attention. Youíre an overprivileged snowflake.

Suddenly, some people saw me in the light that they see women, people of colour and LGBT Americans. Suddenly, some people felt entitled to label me and strip me of my individuality.

But I didnít speak up to promote myself. I spoke up, I hope, for the same reasons that athletes whoíve come before me did. I want my country to change. And I want people who look like me to start coming to terms with this reality: even if we canít fully identify with the challenges that minorities sometimes face, or havenít experienced the kind of attacks that theyíve faced, we owe it to our country to use the privilege we have to fight for what is right.

ē Race Imboden, a member of the United States fencing team, is a world champion and an Olympic medal-winner

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Published Aug 14, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Aug 14, 2019 at 8:10 am)

Off the fence: why I took a knee

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