“I’m here to represent those who died due to systemic racism”, Gwendolyn Denise Berry, who has a long history of activism, once stated. The 31-year-old Olympic hammer thrower on Saturday turned away from the flag during a ceremony at the U.S. Olympic trials. She said she was “set up”.
On Saturday when the anthem started, Berry was on the podium after finishing third in the trials. While the song played, Berry placed her left hand on her hip and shuffled her feet. She then turned to face the stands instead of the flag. Toward the end of the anthem, she picked up a black T-shirt that said “Activist Athlete” on the front. She draped it over her head. The first and second-place finishers DeAnna Price and Brooke Andersen had their hands over their hearts while the anthem played.
The anthem, unlike the Olympics, does not accompany medals ceremonies at the U.S. trials. The hammer throwers on Saturday received their awards moments before the beginning of the evening session. “I feel like it was a set-up, and they did it on purpose,” Berry, who is outspoken about racial injustice in the U.S., said of the timing of the anthem. “I was pissed, to be honest.”
“They said they were going to play it before we walked out, then they played it when we were out there,” she said. “But I don’t really want to talk about the anthem because that’s not important. The anthem doesn’t speak for me. It never has.”
Berry demonstrated during the playing of the national anthem at the 2019 Pan American Games. She raised her fist as The Star-Spangled Banner ended when she won gold at the Games, saying it was a protest against injustice in the U.S. and the presidency of Donald Trump.
Speaking on the accusation that she was set up, a spokesperson for USA Track and Field commented: “[T]he national anthem was scheduled to play at 5:20 p.m. today. 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.”
On Saturday, the anthem started at 5.25 pm.
Berry gets a place at the Olympics following her third-place finish at the trials. The American track and field athlete said she will use her position to raise awareness about social injustice in the U.S. “My purpose and my mission is bigger than sports,” she said. “I’m here to represent those … who died due to systemic racism. That’s the important part. That’s why I’m going. That’s why I’m here today.”
The hammer thrower’s gesture on Saturday was hardly noticed by those in attendance. People only reacted after images of her turning away from the flag hit social media. Here’s what to know about the Olympic hammer thrower who appears to have given us a hint about what she may do in Tokyo, where the IOC said it will enforce its Rule 50 that bans demonstrations at events.
1. Berry was born to parents Michael Berry and Laura Hayes and raised in the greater St. Louis area, where she attended McCluer High School in Ferguson, MO. She then went on to Southern Illinois University (SIU). There, she earned a degree in Psychology and a minor in Criminal Justice.
2. She was first recruited to be a triple jumper for SIU before she ultimately made up her mind to try the hammer. Berry threw the Junior National Qualifying mark in her first three months of training for the event. She became a multiple-time All-American for the Southern Illinois Salukis, according to one account. After graduating, success came to her in the hammer, enabling her to get selected to represent the USA in the Pan-Am Mexico Festival. She also got a spot on Team USA at the Rio Olympics.
3. Raised by her grandmother in a family of 13 members, Gwen got pregnant with her son, Derrick, at the age of 15. That nearly changed things for her but she never gave up on sports and today, she is listed among the best hammer throwers in the world.
Since winning gold at the 2019 Pan American Games and raising her fist on the podium, the athlete activist has become one of the most outspoken leaders in the sport fighting to bring awareness to issues of social injustice in the U.S. Although she was sanctioned for demonstrating at the 2019 Pan American Games, her move ultimately pushed the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee to “commit to not punishing athletes who raise fists or kneel at the trials or in Tokyo.” Berry was named the 2020 Toyota Humanitarian Award recipient for her activism work.
4. The elite hammer thrower, who has won gold in indoor championships three times, was recently described as “an extremely humbled individual” who “works three jobs to stay in the sport and fund international travel.” According to a bio of her, she “holds a strong dedication to her family and the collegiate athletes she coaches.”