EUGENE, Ore. — For the past week, the national anthem has played one time per evening at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. On Saturday, the song happened to start while outspoken activist Gwen Berry was standing on the podium after receiving her bronze medal in the hammer throw.
While the music played, Berry placed her left hand on her hip and fidgeted. She took a quarter turn, so she was facing the stands, not the flag. Toward the end, she plucked up her black T-shirt with the words “Activist Athlete” emblazoned on the front, and draped it over her head.
“I feel like it was a setup, and they did it on purpose,” Berry said of the timing of the anthem. “I was pissed, to be honest.”
Berry’s reaction to the “Star-Spangled Banner” was as notable as anything on the track on a blazing-hot Saturday, the second-to-last day at U.S. Olympic trials. With temperatures reaching 101 degrees (38 Celsius) on the field, DeAnna Price won the event with a throw of 263 feet, 6 inches (80.31 meters), which was nearly 7 feet longer than Berry’s throw. Price broke the meet record on four of her six throws, and the last two of those throws also broke the American record.
Second place belonged to Brooke Andersen, while Berry grabbed the third spot by a scant 2 inches over Janee Kassanavoid. Berry, heading to her second Olympics, has promised to use her position in Tokyo 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 found it to be no matter of coincidence that she was front and center during the anthem. Unlike the Olympics, anthems aren’t played to accompany medal ceremonies at the trials. But the hammer throwers received their awards just before the start of the evening session, which has been kicking off all week with a videotaped rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
USA Track and Field spokeswoman Susan Hazzard said “the 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 music started at 5:25.
And so, while Price and Andersen stood still on the podium with their hands over the hearts and stared straight ahead at the American and Oregon flags, Berry fidgeted and paced on the third step. Then she turned away and finally grabbed her T-shirt.
“They said they were going to play it before we walked out, then they played it when we were out there,” said Berry. “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.”
Her gestures drew virtually no reaction from the still-filling stands. And they were something far less than two summers ago, when Berry raised her fist on the podium after winning the Pan-Am Games.