TOKYO (AP) — Outspoken hammer thrower Gwen Berry was as proud as any of the 600 American Olympians in Tokyo to be donning the red, white and blue uniform with the letters “USA” emblazoned across the chest.
“I feel like I’ve earned the right to wear this uniform,” she said Sunday, after making it safely through her qualifying round in her first appearance at the Tokyo Games.
She’d be even happier to be wearing it if she’s standing on the medals stand while her national anthem plays a few nights from now. If that happens, Berry promised she would do what she’s been doing whenever the spotlight shines her way.
“I’ll represent the oppressed people,” she said. “That’s been my message for the last three years.”
The 32-year-old Berry is on the ground floor of the athlete-activism movement that has enveloped the Olympics, not only since the torch was lighted at the stadium last week, but over the past two years.
She’s the one who raised her fist two years ago on the medals stand at the Pan American Games. That gesture s parked a wide-ranging debate, and then a review, of what is allowed in Olympic venues where political demonstrations have long been forbidden.
Over the first 10 days at the Olympics, that topic has taken a back seat to the subject of mental health, which, triggered by Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, has become the center of discussion among athletes and the media in Tokyo.
Berry says that part matters to her, too. Her uncle passed away at the beginning of 2021, and her agent died just before the Olympic trials last month.
“I felt like I was going to quit this sport in February,” she said. “It’s been hard. But overall, I have to be thankful I’m alive, and I’m here, and I made it.”
Berry spent a subdued hour on the hot-and-humid field to start Day 3 of Olympic track.
In the morning’s only medal event, Gong Lijao of China won gold in the shot put, besting Raven Saunders of the United States, who threw in her trademark “Incredible Hulk” mask and now has a silver medal to go with her purple and green hair.
“I’m going to be me, unapologetically,” said Saunders, who is openly gay.
She has a fan in Berry, who got to know the shot putter when they were both at the University of Mississippi.
“We support each other a lot. We cry with each other a lot. So yeah, that’s my friend, for sure,” Berry said.
By this point, Berry knows who her friends are and who they aren’t.
At the U.S. Olympic trials last month, she sparked a firestorm on social media when she turned away from the flag while the national anthem played during the medals ceremony. USA Track and Field only played the anthem once a day at the event, and said it was purely coincidental that the song and Berry’s ceremony intersected.
Berry doesn’t believe that.
“I feel like they used that moment to take away from athletes who were on the podium because they knew how I’d respond,” she said.
None of that matters to her this week in Tokyo. If she reaches her goal — getting a win at the Olympics — the cameras and the anthem will be obliged to follow.
“I’m just focused on what I need to do,” Berry said. “Because all those people who hate me, they aren’t here. So they can’t affect me.”
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