News & Politics

On Sports and Civil Rights: An Olympic Moment Remembered

Forty years have passed since Tommie Smith and John Carlos' medal stand demonstration drew attention to the state of civil rights in America.
At the start of the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, it's hard to believe that 40 years have passed since American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos shocked the world by staging a silent but dramatic demonstration during the medal presentation ceremony that followed their first- and third-place finishes in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.

As Smith and Carlos mounted the medal podium, along with second-place finisher Peter Norman of Australia, few among the 100,000 spectators and untold millions watching on television noticed that the two Americans were shoeless and wearing black gloves, or that Norman had an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge pinned to the pullover top of his uniform.

At first, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, as one by one the medals were placed around the necks of the athletes, with bronze awarded first to Carlos, silver next to Norman, and finally gold to Smith, the Olympic champion. Next, as was and remains the custom, the three athletes turned to face the corner of the stadium where the flag of the nation of each of the medalists was about to be raised.

But as the opening notes of "The Star Spangled Banner" began to reverberate through the vast Olympic arena, Smith turned slightly toward Carlos. The two then immediately bowed their heads and thrust their arms straight into the air, Smith his right, Carlos his left, their black-gloved fists clenched in a gesture debated in some circles even today.

Living and working in South Boston at the time, and up to my neck in the anti-war movement, I remember looking on at home with a mixture of shock and admiration as Smith and Carlos stood there in front of the world, their defiant gesture a bold and courageous statement against the hypocrisy of a nation that had yet to come even close to practicing what it preached regarding the rights and freedoms of all of it citizens.

Looking back on that amazing event, it's important to put the whole affair in the context of the times. The year was 1968, a tumultuous, watershed period in American history, with a bitter, divisive war being waged in Southeast Asia, student demonstrations, sit-ins and urban riots going on all over the country, a third of the nation's youth lost to drugs, and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential contender Robert Kennedy, brother of a U.S. president gunned down five years earlier in Dallas, typical of the stories that led off the three major network news broadcasts every evening on television.

In the days leading up to the Mexico City Olympics, there had been rumors of a growing movement among black athletes to boycott the Games as a protest against the intolerable racial conditions that still existed at home. But the effort fell short, the prevailing view among those participating in the discussion being that the best place to present their case for justice and equality was on the track. It was there, the athletes reasoned, where they could best demonstrate that, given the opportunity, black Americans could compete on even terms with anyone -- whether white, red, yellow, brown or green -- not only on the athletic field, but in any field of endeavor, anywhere in the world.

There was, however, general agreement within the group on one other important point. Those socially conscious black athletes who wished to speak to the complicated issue of race were free to do so, but only as individuals and not as spokespersons for any organized collective separate and divided from the larger, fully integrated American team.

And so it was that option that Tommie Smith and John Carlos, despite their considerable fears and concerns, chose in speaking out, as they did, shortly after their remarkable 200-meter Olympic performances on that historic afternoon 40 years ago.

Newspaper accounts the following day vilified the two for their "Nazi-like salute." One writer compared Smith and Carlos to "black-skinned storm troopers." But the reaction of top International Olympic Committee officials was even harsher and more damaging.

Within hours of their departure from the medal stand, IOC officials demanded that Smith and Carlos be immediately removed from the U.S. team and ordered home. At first, American team officials refused. But the next morning, when the IOC threatened to ban the entire U.S. team from the final two days of competition, membership of the American Olympic committee caved in to the IOC demand.

Abruptly cut from their U.S. relay teams and expelled from the Olympic Village, Smith and Carlos were then sent home, there to experience a bitter backlash -- years of death threats, character assassinations, attacks on their homes, difficulty in finding employment and other related hardships, not the least of which was the subsequent suicide of Carlos' first wife.

All but lost in the moment and the following decades was the fact that the gesture that had prompted such hateful reaction in so much of the dominant "white community" was anything but "subversive" or "racist." Instead, what Smith and Carlos had done was entirely American, like the Boston Tea Party, or those first shots fired by the Minutemen on the Lexington Green nearly 200 years earlier.

Smith and Carlos would later explain that they had walked shoeless to the podium on the afternoon of Oct. 16, 1968, to demonstrate to the world the impoverished condition that most blacks were still living under in America at the time.

As for the pair's bowed-head, arms-raised gesture? Neither a Black Panther salute nor an expression of hate, that particular posture -- a symbol of humility before God and hope for a more just future -- was fully representative of the religious and spiritual tradition in which both young men had been born and raised.

Forty years have passed since that historic medal stand demonstration. I'd like to think that by their bold and courageous actions, Tommie Smith and John Carlos somehow succeeded in both uniting and giving further hope to all who are committed to creating a truly level playing field in a country where one day people no longer will be referred to by color, class or place of origin, but simply as human beings.

And so, when the gold, silver and bronze medal winners step onto the podium to receive their awards in the coming days, I will remember Olympians Tommie Smith and William Carlos and the sacrifice those two brave men made in helping to bring the American dream a little closer to everyone who calls this country home.
Jim Munn is a writer and boys track coach at Gloucester High School.
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