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ITU Reverses Course on Rule Banning Freedom to Express Sexual Orientation

The ITU called the situation a misunderstanding and has updated the rule.

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Amateur triathletes can have a big impact on our sport. Great Britain’s Jack Bristow, 24, is an age-grouper who has represented his country at International Triathlon Union events. He’s not a household name, but he made news this week after the BBC published an article with this headline: “International Triathlon Union reverses rainbow flag ban after criticism from gay athletes.”

Bristow, who is openly gay, was quoted extensively throughout the BBC’s January 21 piece, which published the day after the ITU released a statement walking back a controversial 2019 code of conduct rule approved last November by the organization’s executive board. The contentious rule had stated that athletes must, “Avoid displaying any kind of demonstration of political, religious, sexual orientation or racial propaganda …”

In Bristow’s opinion, as well some others, freedom of expression—and the rainbow flag, a symbol of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride—were being attacked by the ITU. In fact, the BBC headline ran with a photo of Bristow draped in a rainbow flag following his fourth-place finish during an ITU Series event in Leeds, England, last July.

“It wasn’t really an issue beforehand, so I don’t know why they introduced this rule… We know the risks and it should be our choice,” Bristow told the BBC.

The “risks,” according to speculation by some, was that the ITU’s new conduct rule was adopted in advance of the Daman World Triathlon Series event scheduled March 8-9, 2019 in Abu Dhabi, where homosexuality can be prosecuted. At press time, the ITU hasn’t publicly commented on the speculation. However, in an emailed response to questions regarding its statement this week, the ITU’s media chief Olalla Cernuda told Triathlete, “the rule was aimed to protect all collectives from demonstration against them.”

“To have my pride equated with political extremism and to be told to go back in the closet for my own safety is insulting,” Bristow told Outsports on January 18, two days before the ITU publicly reversed course. He continued the debate on social media, and he launched a petition on titled “The ITU should reconsider banning the rainbow flag,” which at press time had received 387 signatures.

After the ITU’s January 20 statement that promised a review of its policies, Bristow celebrated the organization’s change of heart.

“Victory …,” he wrote on Twitter.

The ITU statement read:
The International Triathlon Union (ITU) is aware of articles published recently suggesting that our institution is banning the rainbow flag at our events, and would like to clarify our position. The ITU has always stood for equality, inclusion, and respect, and would never knowingly take such a decision that would infringe on the rights and freedoms of people to express themselves and banning the display of rainbow flags.

In light of the misunderstanding, ITU will immediately revisit the rule to ensure that individuals’ rights of expression continue to be embraced. ITU regrets that this interpretation of the updated rules could have affected any person. It was never ITU’s intention that anyone could be hurt by this decision, one that was never intended to be taken against any group of individuals, no matter their race, religion or sexual orientation.

ITU is proud to be an organisation that is absolutely inclusive from its inception and will continue to be so in the future.

In addition to the statement, the ITU has revised its conduct rule by eliminating reference to sexual orientation. The language now states that athletes must “Avoid displaying any kind of demonstration of political, religious or racial propaganda …”