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February 22 – 1968 Olympic Salute

Last Friday, I introduced Vonetta Flowers, the first person of African descent to ever win a Gold Medal in a Winter Olympic Games. Since we’re already on the subject, I’d like to use today’s edition to highlight a significant moment in time for both the Civil Rights movement AND the Olympics. The date was October 16, 1968. The venue: Mexico City’s Summer Olympics. Three men, having just won the 200 meter race, accepted their medals and then saluted, making one of the most recognizable and controversial statements in Olympic history.

The Athletes
Tommie Smith (USA), was the gold-medalist in the event, after posting a new world-record time (he was the first to break the 20-second barrier in the 200m on an Olympic stage). Over the course of his career, he was a track-and-field star who set 7 individual world records, was a member of several world-record relay teams, won numerous events and awards, and later played Wide Receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals. He was also an educator and a Human Rights activist.
Peter Norman (Australia), who took home the Silver medal, was also a footballer, but in the more traditional sense. Prior to the ’68 Games, he was a trainer for West Brunswick Football Club, and afterwards he played in 67 matches with them. In addition to being a fine athlete, he was also sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement in America, and openly opposed to his own country’s White Australia policy.
John Carlos (USA) had the third best time that day. Like Smith, Carlos was an extremely gifted sprinter who trained at the same University (San Jose State) under the same coach (Lloyd Winter) before competing in the ’68 Summer Olympics. He was also a highly decorated runner who went on to play professional football and eventually teach.

The Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR)
OPHR was established in 1967 by sociologist Harry Edwards along with community leaders and African-American athletes, including both Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Their mission was to leverage the Olympics (via boycott) as a means for protesting racial segregation in America and abroad, as well as racism in sports. The focus was the advancement of ALL human rights, not just African-Americans, and they stressed the need treat “all humanity, even those who denied us ours,” as fellow human beings.

The Statement
When the OPHR failed to organize a full boycott, Smith and Carlos decided to compete anyway, and to make their statement while there. Knowing the Olympics were an international stage, and that the event was broadcast around the globe, Smith and Carlos planned a symbolic, silent protest to deliver while atop the medal stand.

Both brought black gloves to the Games in order to deliver the traditional Power to the People Salute during the playing of the National Anthem. Unfortunately, Carlos left his back at the Olympic Village, so at Peter Norman’s suggestion, he borrowed Smith’s left glove and saluted with his left hand instead. They also accepted their medals without shoes, instead opting to wear black socks to represent black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf to show Black Pride, and Carlos, with his jacket unzipped, showed his solidarity with all blue-collar workers. Around his neck, he also wore a beaded necklace in honor of all the nameless, faceless victims of violence and lynchings throughout African-American history. All three men, including Norman, wore OPHR badges.

Public Outcry
Though important and memorable, their actions were not without negative consequences. The president of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, deemed their domestic political statement unfit and inappropriate for the International, apolitical Games, and he had Smith and Carlos banned from the Olympic Village and expelled from the Games. Back home, they faced death threats and ostracism by the US sporting community. Time Magazine even called their display Angry, Nasty, and Ugly on their cover.

For his participation, Norman faced similar treatment back in Australia, where he faced constant taunts, threats and excommunication. In 1972, he was rejected by the Olympic team despite qualifying, and even as late as 2000, the Australian Olympic organizing committee completely refused to entertain the notion of involving him in any way. He died in 2006 of a heart attack caused by 2 decades of depression and heavy drinking.

Fortunately for Smith and Carlos, public sentiment in America eventually shifted and came a full 180 degrees around. They have both been commended and praised for the courage and bravery of their act, and have received awards such as the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2008 ESPY’s. San Jose State University even commissioned a 22-foot tall statue of them in the moment of their protest. Oddly enough, Norman was not immortalized along with them. Instead, his space is empty for visitors to “take a stand” in his place.

thanks for reading,

francis

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