Hammer thrower Gwen Berry sparked an angry backlash on Saturday when she turned away from the American flag while on the podium for a medal ceremony at the U.S. Olympic trials, saying it was 'disrespectful' to play the national anthem while she took a bronze medal.
While the anthem played at the trials in Eugene, Oregon, Berry placed her left hand on her hip and shuffled her feet. She took a quarter turn, so she was facing the stands, not the flag.
Toward the end, Berry - who is an outspoken activist on racial justice issues - plucked up her black T-shirt with the words 'Activist Athlete' emblazoned on the front, and draped it over her head.
The incident prompted an angry backlash against Berry from politicians and commentators, with some calling for her to be removed from the Olympic team and others questioning her patriotism, but Berry later defended herself, saying, 'I never said I hate this country'.
'What is wrong with people?,' Republican and former governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker tweeted in response. 'Growing up, everyone stood for the American flag. Didn't matter your politics, race, sex, income, religion; everyone stood for the flag. It was one of those civic rituals that brought us together. It still should today.'
Texas Senator Ted Cruz also took to Twitter to react to the story, writing: Why does the Left hate America? Sure, we have our faults, but no nation in the history of the world has liberated more people from captivity, has lifted more out of poverty, has bled more for freedom, or has blessed more w/ abundance. God bless America.'
Vic DeGrammont, a Republican congressional candidate in Florida, wrote on Twitter: 'If you can't respect the flag or anthem then you shouldn't be allowed to complete.'
Gwendolyn Berry, left, looks away as DeAnna Price and Brooke Andersen stand for the national anthem after the finals of the women's hammer throw at the Olympic trials on Saturday
While the anthem played at the trials in Eugene, Oregon , Berry placed her left hand on her hip and shuffled her feet before turning away toward the stands
Gwendolyn Berry raises her Activist Athlete T-Shirt over her head during the metal ceremony after the finals of the women's hammer throw at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials
Toward the end of the anthem, Berry plucked up her black T-shirt with the words 'Activist Athlete' emblazoned on the front, and draped it over her head
Opinion writer Josh Jordan mocked Berry's claim that she was tricked into standing on the podium for when the anthem was played. 'Yes, the US Olympics committee spent their time meticulously planning to make sure that the national anthem was played at the exact moment she was on the podium… because everyone knows the Olympics is all about (checks tweet) Gwen Berry,' he wrote sarcastically.
Journalist David Steinberg suggested a different athlete be sent in Berry's place. 'Send the fourth-place finisher,' he wrote. 'Gwen Berry has a world of options if she doesn't want to compete under our flag. Not a penny of taxpayer money should fund her campaign to make Americans hate each other.'
Speaking on Fox News, wrestler Tyrus Murdoch said: 'We've had some issues in this country especially as a black man when I go to Tommy Smith, John Carlos, Jessie Owens who they had issues, they fought, they wanted dignity, but they also wanted a seat at the table.
'They wanted to show how much they loved their country, how much they belong, and human rights issues and they fought for it. This isn't it. Even if we are taking a knee on the baseball game, I have no problem with a professional athlete being a citizen, taking a respectful knee during the flag if that's what you choose to do while still honoring the flag, I have no issue...
'[But] why are you even competing in the Olympics if you hate the flag and the country so much? If it's such a horrible place, why are you doing it?' Murdoch asked of Berry.
Berry hit back at the criticism she was receiving on social media over the incident. 'These comments really show that: 1.) people in American (sic) rally patriotism over basic morality,' she wrote on Twitter.
'2.) Even after the murder of George Floyd and so many others; the commercials, statements, and phony sentiments regarding black lives were just a hoax.'
She later added: 'I never said I hate this country! People try to put words in my mouth but they can't. That's why I speak out. I LOVE MY PEOPLE.'
Saturday's incident promoted an angry backlash against Berry, with some calling for her to be removed from the Olympic team. Pictured: Reaction to Berry turning away from the flag during the anthem
'I feel like it was a set-up, and they did it on purpose,' Berry said earlier, who finished third to make her second U.S. Olympic team. 'I was pissed, to be honest.'
Berry previously protested during competition against racism, most recently raising a fist at the trials on Thursday, and said that she felt insulted by the Star-Spangled Banner playing as she took the podium.
'They had enough opportunities to play the national anthem before we got up there,' she said. 'I was thinking about what I should do. Eventually I stayed there and I swayed, I put my shirt over my head. It was real disrespectful.'
'It really wasn't a message. I didn't really want to be up there. Like I said, it was a setup. I was hot, I was ready to take my pictures and get into some shade,' added Berry.
'They said they were going to play it before we walked out, then they played it when we were out there,' Berry 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.'
USA Track and Field said the anthem was played once every day at the trials according to a published schedule.
Saturday's schedule listed the time for the anthem as 5.20pm, though it began at around 5.25pm.
'We didn't wait until the athletes were on the podium for the hammer throw awards,' spokeswoman Susan Hazzard said in a statement. 'The national anthem is played every day according to a previously published schedule.'
'We're thrilled with the women's hammer throw team that selected themselves for the Games,' added Hazzard.
Berry hit back at the criticism she was receiving on social media over the incident
USA Track and Field said the anthem was played every day at the trials according to a published schedule, and was not timed to coincide with the hammer trials
'I feel like it was a set-up, and they did it on purpose,' said Berry (right), who finished third to make her second U.S. Olympic team. 'I was pissed, to be honest.'
'I didn't really want to be up there. Like I said, it was a setup. I was hot, I was ready to take my pictures and get into some shade,' said Berry
Berry was suspended for 12 months by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) for a raised fist at the 2019 Pan American Games, but did so again before Thursday's qualifying round as part of her quest for social change.
The USOPC in March reversed its stance and said that athletes competing in the U.S. Olympic trials can protest, including kneeling or raising a clenched fist on the podium or at the start line during the national anthem.
Berry has promised to use her position to keep raising awareness about social injustices in her home country.
'My purpose and my mission is bigger than sports,' Berry 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.'
Berry raises her fist at the trials on Thursday, after USOPC reversed its ban on athlete protests and apologized for sanctioning her for a similar protest in 2019
Last June, Berry demanded a letter of apology from USOPC for sanctioning her over her 2019 Pan American Games protest, and then revised her demand to ask for a public apology from USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland.
Hirshland met the demand and issued a statement after meeting with Berry privately.
'I am grateful to Gwen for her time and her honesty last night,' Hirshland said in the statement.
'I heard her. I apologized for how my decisions made her feel and also did my best to explain why I made them. Gwen has a powerful voice in this national conversation, and I am sure that together we can use the platform of Olympic and Paralympic sport to address and fight against systematic inequality and racism in our country.'
Gwen Berry places third in the women's hammer with a throw of 241-2 (73.50m) during the US Olympic Team Trials at Hayward Field on Saturday
Last June, Berry (seen in 2017) demanded a letter of apology from USOPC for sanctioning her over her 2019 Pan American Games protest, and received one
Now, Berry will be heading to her second Olympics, and on Saturday she saw what it will take to earn a spot on the podium in Tokyo.
DeAnna Price won the trials with a throw of 263 feet, 6 inches, which was nearly 7 feet longer than Berry's throw. Brooke Andersen took second place.
Price, who became only the second woman in history to crack 80 meters, said she had no problem sharing the stage with Berry.
'I think people should say whatever they want to say. I'm proud of her,' Price said.
She figures to be going for gold along with world-record holder Anita Wlodarczyk of Poland, who is expected to be in Japan. Meanwhile, Andersen's throw was a mere 2 inches shy of Berry's personal best.
Berry said she needs to get 'my body right, my mind right and my spirit right' for the Olympics. The women's hammer throw starts August 1 in Tokyo.