Gwen Berry, a US hammer thrower, has responded to criticism over her decision to turn her back on the flag while on the podium at the Olympic trials, saying she “never said that I hated the country.”
Berry finished third in Saturday’s trials in Eugene, Oregon, to earn a spot in her second Olympics, which begin in Tokyo next month.
During the medal ceremony, she turned away from the flag and draped a T-shirt with the words “activist athlete” over her head while “The Star-Spangled Banner” played.
Berry later claimed that she was “set up” on the podium after learning that the national anthem would be performed prior to the ceremony.
USA Track and Field (USATF) has not responded to CNN’s requests for comment, but Reuters reports that the anthem was played on a pre-determined schedule each day at the trials.
Berry has acknowledged a barrage of criticism on social media as a result of her actions. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas are among her detractors, with the latter calling for her removal 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 CNN affiliate 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 claimed that there had been no prior mention of the national anthem being played while the athletes were on the podium, which led her to believe it was a set-up. The anthem was played once every evening during the trials.
“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.”
When asked about Berry’s actions on Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said she hadn’t discussed the incident with President Joe Biden.
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 from the past and present, including US triple jumper Will Claye, have expressed their support for Berry.
“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.”
At the trials, the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee allowed athletes to participate in “respectful demonstrations on the topic of racial and social justice,” but the Tokyo Olympics will have a ban on “protests and demonstrations.”
Berry lost some of her sponsorships in 2019 after protesting on the podium at the Pan American Games in Peru by raising her fist.
The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee put her on probation for a year for the act, which she claims was meant to highlight social injustice in the United States.