Wednesday, August 1, 2012

1968 Olympics in Mexico: A Political Protest That Rocked the World

Many are watching the XXX Olympiad Games which are being held in London. The Olympics have a rich history and many unforgettable moments of athletic performances. Some of these moments are non-controversial highlights are retold quite often, but some are seldom mentioned, as if they are shameful and unworthy of note. As the generations move farther and farther from a specific event, great moments may be lost due to the silence that surrounds them. We must be vigilant to recognize and appreciate the stories of great heroes and leaders who made their marks on the world during the Olympic games.

Revisit the 1968 Olympics and medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Here's their story reported in detail on Wikipedia:

On the morning of 16 October 1968, U.S. athlete Tommie Smith won the 200 meter race in a world-record time of 19.83 seconds, with Australia's Peter Norman second with a time of 20.06 seconds, and the U.S.'s John Carlos in third place with a time of 20.10 seconds. After the race was completed, the three went to collect their medals at the podium. The two U.S. athletes received their medals shoeless, but wearing black socks, to represent black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride, Carlos had his tracksuit top unzipped to show solidarity with all blue collar workers in the U.S. and wore a necklace of beads which he described "were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage." All three athletes wore Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges after Norman, a critic of Australia's White Australia Policy, expressed empathy with their ideals. Sociologist Harry Edwards, the founder of the OPHR, had urged black athletes to boycott the games; reportedly, the actions of Smith and Carlos on 16 October 1968 were inspired by Edwards' arguments.

Both U.S. athletes intended on bringing black gloves to the event, but Carlos forgot his, leaving them in the Olympic Village. It was the Australian, Peter Norman, who suggested Carlos wear Smith's left-handed glove, this being the reason behind him raising his left hand, as opposed to his right, differing from the traditional Black Power salute. When "The Star-Spangled Banner" played, Smith and Carlos delivered the salute with heads bowed, a gesture which became front page news around the world. As they left the podium they were booed by the crowd. Smith later said "If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight."

International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, Avery Brundage, deemed it to be a domestic political statement, unfit for the apolitical, international forum the Olympic Games were supposed to be. In an immediate response to their actions, he ordered Smith and Carlos suspended from the U.S. team and banned from the Olympic Village. When the US Olympic Committee refused, Brundage threatened to ban the entire US track team. This threat led to the two athletes being expelled from the Games
A spokesman for the IOC said it was "a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit." Brundage, who was president of the United States Olympic Committee in 1936, had made no objections against Nazi salutes during the Berlin Olympics. He argued that the Nazi salute, being a national salute at the time, was acceptable in a competition of nations, while the athletes' salute was not of a nation and therefore unacceptable.

Brundage had been one of the United States' most prominent Nazi sympathisers even after the outbreak of the Second World War, and his removal as president of the IOC had been one of the three stated objectives of the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

Today, the official IOC website states that "Over and above winning medals, the black American athletes made names for themselves by an act of racial protest."

Smith and Carlos paid a high price for putting principle before personal consideration. They were largely ostracized by the U.S. sporting establishment in the following years and, in addition, were subject to criticism of their actions. Time magazine showed the five-ring Olympic logo with the words, "Angrier, Nastier, Uglier", instead of "Faster, Higher, Stronger". Back home, they were subject to abuse and they and their families received death threats.

Smith continued in athletics, going on to play in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals, before becoming an assistant professor of Physical Education at Oberlin College. In 1995, he went on to help coach the U.S. team at the World Indoor Championships at Barcelona. In 1999 he was awarded the California Black Sportsman of the Millennium Award. He is now a public speaker.

Carlos' career followed a similar path to Smith's. He initially continued in athletics, equalling the 100 yard dash world record the following year. Later, he played in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles, before a knee injury prematurely ended his career. He fell upon hard times in the late 1970s and, in 1977, his ex-wife committed suicide, leading him to a period of depression. In 1982, Carlos was employed by the Organizing Committee for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles to promote the games and act as liaison with the city's black community. In 1985, he became a track and field coach at Palm Springs High School, a post he still holds.

Norman, who was sympathetic to his competitors' protest, was reprimanded by his country's Olympic authorities and ostracized by the Australian media. He was not picked for the 1972 Summer Olympics, despite finishing third in his trials. Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral after his death in 2006.

The Black Power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos atop the medal podium at the 1968 Olympic Games remains a symbolic moment in the history of the African-American Civil Rights Movement even 44 years later.

1 comment:

  1. I remember, vividiy, the Black Power salute at the1968 Olympics and the controversial impact of that heroic action. However, I am embarrassed to say that I was not aware of ALL of the symbolisms and details surrounding the incident.

    Thanks Silverlady! I aiways learn from your blogs and articals.