On the eve of the opening of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, especially in light of the persecution of the LGBT population in Russia, it seemed appropriate to recall the courageous actions taken by Olympic athletes back in 1968 during the Olympic Games in Mexico City.
1968 was a year of protest, strife, revolution and tragedy across the world. It witnessed uprisings in the Western European countries of France, Germany and Italy, demonstrations in Spain against the dictator Francisco Franco, and the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia.
In the US, the civil rights and anti-war demonstrations were reaching a crescendo. Anti-war candidate Gene McCarthy challenged the incumbent President and when Robert Kennedy entered the presidential race, Lyndon Johnson chose not to run for another term. Kennedy seemed to galvanize working people across racial and ethnic lines in a way that hasn't occurred since. The assassinations of MLK and RFK, and the shameful conduct of the Democratic Party during their convention left many people disillusioned. The mainstream Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey actually allowed Nixon to emerge as the anti-war candidate and win the Presidency.
The 1968 Olympics did not escape the protest or turmoil. The racist regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia, faced with a threatened boycott led by African nations, were disinvited from the games. Then less than two weeks before the opening ceremonies, protests by Mexican students were violently put down at the "Tlatelolco massacre". Hundreds of students and workers were murdered by the Mexican authorities who hoped to eliminate any possibility of disruptions during the games. The massacre was covered up by the Mexican government, the US State Department (“The disturbances in Mexico City affected only a small part of the population and order is now restored.”) and the compliant media; and they along with the IOC hoped that the games would continue without further controversy.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos had other plans.
Today not many people recognize the name of Dr. Harry Edwards. He is a professor emeritus of sociology at UC,Berkeley. He is most famous for promoting the inclusion of African-Americans in the management of college and professional athletics. He has been an advisor to professional leagues and teams and his views have become more mainstream over the years, but in the 1960s his ideas challenged the existing power structure.
In 1967 Edwards organized the Olympic Project for Human Rights. The group included many of the important black Olympic athletes such as Lee Evans, Ralph Boston, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wyomia Tyus, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos. They had five demands including the removal of racist Avery Brundage as IOC president, disinviting South Africa and Rhodesia (this had already been done but the racist Brundage was campaigning to have them reinstated), restoration of Muhammed Ali's boxing title, hiring of more African-American coaches, and the end of the "whites only" policy at the New York Athletic Club. The OPHR threatened a boycott of the summer Olympics unless the demands were met. The reaction to the threatened boycott was condemnation and threats from the press, the public, and the sports establishment. Their was some criticism within the African-American community including comments from 1936 Olympic hero, Jesse Owens. However support came from others, including Martin Luther King and a man who had been highly critical of Ali, Jackie Robinson.
Except for the already accomplished disinviting of South Africa and Rhodesia, none of the other demands were met. At a June meeting of black athletes, all of whom had spent years preparing for the games, there was not unanimous in support of the boycott. So it was decided that to preserve unity, rather than a boycott, it would be left to each athlete to determine if and how they would protest. In the end, only Abdul-Jabbar refused to participate.
On day one of the Olympics, Americans Jim Hines and Charles Greene went one-two in the 100 meter dash. There was no noticeable protest at the medal ceremony, though it was reported that they did not shake hands with Avery Brundage, who presented the medals. (Brundage did not present another medal during the games.)
On the second day, Smith and Carlos finished one and three in the 200. What they did on the medal stand would make history and forever impact their lives. In addition to wearing their OPHR buttons, Smith and Carlos each donned a black glove to show solidarity with oppressed people around the world, removed their shoes to symbolize the poverty of black America, and put on a necklace to represent lynching in the US. Australian Peter Norman, who was the silver medalist, also wore an OPHR button to show support for the American sprinters. As the Star-Spangled Banner began, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists in a gesture that was captured in the memorable photograph below. From left to right are Norman, Smith and Carlos.
The reaction was swift and harsh. Smith and Carlos were suspended from the team, expelled from the Olympic Village and sent home. Said Brundage, "They violated one of the basic principles of the Olympic games: that politics play no part whatsoever in them.”. This was the same Brundage who said nothing when Hitler turned the '36 Olympics into a propaganda extravaganza for the Nazis, including the German athletes giving the Nazi salute.
Back in the US, the two athletes met with nearly universal condemnation. The media reaction was savage. A feature article in Time magazine, playing off the Olympic slogan "Faster, Higher, Stronger", pictured the Olympic logo with the words, "Angrier, Nastier, Uglier". The most vitiolic attack was probably from Brent Musberger, who labeled them as "a pair of dark-skinned storm troopers". (Incidentally, Musberger has never apologized for his slanderous attack.)
Smith and Carlos received loads of hate mail and many death threats. Even members of their families were threatened. They were ostracized and in the years following the protest, they had trouble finding work. Smith was immediately fired from his job at North American Pontiac. He briefly played in the NFL but was largely shunned. Carlos completed his senior year at college, also had a brief NFL career and despite his college degree worked a variety of menial jobs in the ’70s. The threats, ostracization and financial problems continued, creating a strain on his marriage, and Carlos blames the stress for his wife's suicide in 1977.
Eventually both Tommie Smith and John Carlos were acknowledged for their courage and given the respect they deserved. They received numerous awards including the 2008 Arthur Ashe Award for Courage In 2004, San Jose State University erected a statue depicting the iconic moment in Mexico City. Smith doesn't like to use the word "vindicated". "To be vindicated means that I did something wrong," he says. "I didn't do anything wrong." Acknowledgement is likely a better word.
After the rocky times in the 1970s, both men went on to successful careers, Smith as a college instructor and coach, and Carlos as a high school counselor and coach. Though their actions at the '68 Olympics certainly cost them both emotionally and financially, neither man regrets his actions. Says Smith: "I just carried out a responsibility. We felt a need to represent a lot of people who did more than we did but had no platform, people who suffered long before I got to the victory stand." And from John Carlos: "You cannot regret what you knew, to the very core of your person, was right." Both men continue to speak in support of human rights. In October 2011, Carlos spoke at the General Assembly of Occupy Wall Street in Zucotti Park.
Peter Norman also faced retribution for his show of solidarity. He was reprimanded by the Australian Olympic Committee, was left off the 1972 Olympic Team despite qualifying, and was not even included in the ceremonies surrounding the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. (He was eventually invited as a guest of the American delegation.) At Norman's funeral in 2006, Smith and Carlos were pall bearers and eulogized him. In an interview John Carlos said, "He was my brother."
The 1968 Olympics were held in the fall. I was a college student at the time. I had been involved in the civil rights movement since high school and was becoming more radicalized as I entered my 20s. Of course the clenched fist protest by Smith and Carlos created quite a stir on campus and in particular in one of my classes, "The Coaching of Track and Field". With most of the students and the instructor opposing the actions of Smith and Carlos, I found myself holding the minority opinion, an opinion I took the opportunity to express as often as possible. In an essay for the class, I wrote:
These two black athletes acted not as politicians but as humanitarians. They had shown their loyalty to the United States by competing under our flag and by bringing honor to their country through victory. They then showed their loyalty to their oppressed brothers throughout the world by a simple but very courageous actionThough I appreciated the concept of putting aside nationalism during the Olympics, the reality was that during the Cold War, the Olympics were used by both sides for propaganda purposes. I wrote that it therefore seemed hypocritical to ignore human rights abuses and to "pretend that we haven't exploited our fellow man to the fullest". I also condemned Avery Brundage as a jingoistic racist and wrote that he should retire.
The reaction was inevitable. Two "uppity negroes" had dared to stand up to the white man's charade. The worldwide white establishment acted swiftly to to suppress this threat to their absolute authority. The United States apologized publicly, chastised their wayward "negroes" and sent them home.
Though my instructor disagreed with the actions of Smith and Carlos (he did agree with my assessment of Brundage), he nonetheless read my essay to the class as an example of a well thought out dissent.
As I read that essay 45 later, it seems that the words still apply. The Olympics have become even more of a propaganda and marketing tool, and yet the IOC still insists that symbolic protest is inappropriate.
Will there be any Olympians who will protest the Russian human rights abuses in defiance of the IOC and the Russian authorities? Will there be any gay athlete who will have the courage of Tommie Smith and John Carlos? More importantly, will there be any straight athlete who will have the courage of Peter Norman and stand in solidarity with the victims of oppression and persecution?
And if there is a protest, what will be the reaction from the IOC, the Olympic delegations, the press and the public. Forty-five years ago Tommie Smith and John Carlos taught the world about courage and priorities. It remains to be seen whether we have learned the lessons of their actions.
Nota Bene: Dave in Northridge posted a diary, The Sochi Olympics, Homophobia, and Protest in Context from Dave Zirin. The diary discusses various protests at the Olympic Games and includes the '68 protests as part of the tradition.