By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - Protests not boycotts are the way to challenge China on human rights, letting athletes use their platforms to highlight issues hanging over the 2022 Beijing Olympics, according to U.S. women's soccer international Megan Rapinoe.
Although it is COVID-19 not a boycott that has put this summer's Tokyo Games under threat, Rapinoe is rarely shy about sharing her thoughts be it on pandemics or politics.
"I don't think athletes should be pawns," Rapinoe told Reuters in a Zoom interview. "It is always a balance between boycotting and using the event as an opportunity to continue to speak truth to power and protest in some sort of way.
"You can you use the platform to push not only countries but organising bodies and governing bodies to be much more progressive than they have been in the past."
As the most high-profile member of the U.S. squad heading to Japan aiming to reclaim the gold medal they lost at the 2016 Rio Olympics, few athletes have made better use of their platform than Rapinoe, who has brought attention to issues from social injustice to helping the push to get Americans vaccinated.
On Wednesday Rapinoe and her partner WNBA star Sue Bird were welcoming people and checking for symptoms at a COVID-19 mass vaccination clinic in Seattle.
Next Wednesday the 2019 FIFA women's player of the year will be in Washington, D.C., appearing before Congress as part of "Equal Pay Day" to examine the economic harm caused by longstanding gender inequalities.
Even when it comes to endorsements, like one of her newest with Schmidt's deodorant, Rapinoe links products to her social causes, in this case the dismantling of gender norms.
As a gay athlete Rapinoe has been a vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights and verbally sparred with former U.S. President Donald Trump.
She was among the first to take a knee during the playing of the U.S. national anthem to protest against racial injustice and has stood with the Black Lives Matter movement.
But it is the women's national team's battle with the U.S. Soccer Federation over equal pay with the men that has been Rapinoe's main off-field focus.
Last year the two sides settled an unequal working condition claim but the team is appealing an earlier ruling on wage discrimination claims under the Equal Pay Act.
Rapinoe insists that off-field feuds do not distract her or the team from their one goal -- returning home from Tokyo with gold.
"That's what has been so special about this team is being able to fight for equality while fighting for a World Cup and use our platform and use our success on the field to amplify our demand for equality and the respect we deserve," she said.
"I don't pull on the jersey for the federation or the people that are discriminating against me, I put in on for myself, I put it on for all the people that are being discriminated against."
Like most athletes Rapinoe felt the stress of a year that included playing in bubbles with no fans and wondering if there would be a Tokyo Olympics.
Now as the world starts to emerge from the pandemic, the 35-year-old is optimistic the Games will go ahead.
"It is starting to have that kind of buzz," said Rapinoe. "I think it would be a really amazing and kind of an uplifting event to bring the sports world back together for the first time in a long time and do something as special as the Olympics."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto, Editing by Ed Osmond)