US hammer thrower Gwen Berry has responded to criticism over turning away from the flag while on the podium at the Olympic trials, saying she “never said that I hated the country.”
Berry placed third at the trials in Eugene, Oregon, on Saturday to qualify for her second Olympics, which get underway in Tokyo next month.
She then turned away from the flag while “The Star-Spangled Banner” played during the medal ceremony and draped a T-shirt carrying the words “activist athlete” over her head.
Berry later said she was “set up” on the podium having been told that the anthem would be played before the ceremony.
USA Track and Field (USATF) has not responded to CNN’s requests for comment, but according to Reuters, it said the anthem was played each day at the trials according to a pre-arranged schedule.
On social media, Berry has acknowledged a slew of criticism following her actions. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Dan Crenshaw are also among her critics, the latter calling for the 32-year-old to be removed from the Olympic team.
“I never said that I didn’t want to go to the Olympic Games. That’s why I competed and got third and made the team,” Berry told Black News Channel on Monday.
“I never said that I hated the country, never said that. All I said was I respect my people enough to not stand or acknowledge something that disrespects them. I love my people point blank, period.”
Berry also said that there was no prior mention of the anthem being played while the athletes were on the podium, hence why she thought it was a setup. During the trials, the anthem has been played once each evening.
“The intent was we would be introduced to the crowd either before or after the singing of the national anthem,” said Berry. “If we had the option, or if I knew that I was going to be on the podium, I would have chosen something else.”
Asked about Berry’s actions on Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said she hadn’t spoken to President Joe Biden about the incident.
Psaki added: “He is incredibly proud to be an American and has great respect for the anthem and all that it represents, especially for our men and women serving in uniform all around the world.
“He would also say, of course, that part of that pride in our country means recognizing there are moments where we, as a country, haven’t lived up to our highest ideals. And it means respecting the rights of people granted to them in the Constitution to peacefully protest.”
Athletes past and present have offered support to Berry, including US triple jumper Will Claye.
“Gwen, I stand by you and I hope one day the people of this country understand that everything you’re doing is for the LOVE of your people, not because you HATE this country,” Claye, who also qualified for the US team, wrote on Twitter.
Meanwhile, four-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson wrote: “1) You can’t deny her (Berry’s) courage standing up for her beliefs knowing the backlash. 2) USA identities as an example of freedom which includes the freedom to stand, kneel, or peacefully demonstrate when the anthem plays.”
The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee permitted athletes to take part in “respectful demonstrations on the topic of racial and social justice” at the trials, but a ban on “protests and demonstrations” will be in place at the Tokyo Olympics.
In 2019, Berry lost some of her sponsorships after raising her fist in protest on the podium at the Pan American Games in Peru.
She received a 12-month probation from the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee for the act, which she says was meant to highlight social injustice in America.