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Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and the 1968 Olympics: 50 Years Later

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Tommie Smith and John Carlos' iconic black power salute on the 200-meter dash podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Jules Boykoff explains the significance of this radical act in this excerpt from Power Games

Jules Boykoff16 October 2018

Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos raise their fists in solidarity on the podium at the '68 Olympics. via Angelo Cozzi

Anti-apartheid activism created momentum for a historic act of dissent on a related but separate issue. At the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, the African American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood in their socks on the medal stand and thrust their black-glove-clad fists toward the sky as they bowed their heads while the US national anthem played. They were protesting the poverty and racism that plagued the United States and the wider world. Their shoeless feet and black socks symbolized poverty. Their black gloves signified black pride. Carlos’s open jacket represented his working-class roots. Carlos later wrote: “We decided that we would wear black gloves to represent strength and unity. We would have beads hanging from our neck, which would represent the history of lynching. We wouldn’t wear shoes to symbolize the poverty that still plagued so much of black America. On the medal stand, all we would wear on our feet would be black socks.” As Tommie Smith later explained, “The totality of our effort was the regaining of our black dignity.” Carlos told me they took action “to set a standard. To have a society show its best face. To bring attention to the plight of people who were less fortunate. To wake up the consciousness of those who had let their conscience go dormant. And to encourage people to stand for what’s right as opposed to standing for nothing.” Both men pinned human-rights buttons on their track jackets. The silver medalist, Peter Norman of Australia, sported a button in solidarity.

Radical politics were thrumming around the globe as the Olympics took the stage in Mexico City, and so was the violent reaction of the state. Only a few weeks prior at Tlatelolco Plaza in the host city, security forces massacred scores, perhaps hundreds of protesters, a measure of how far Mexican authorities were willing to go to maintain order. The Tlatelolco Plaza demonstrators were protesting the allocation of vast funds for the Olympics while social programs went unfunded. Brundage took stock of the turbulent times and told the opening session of the IOC, “We live today in an uneasy and even rebellious world, a world marked by injus-tice, aggression, demonstrations, disorder, turmoil, violence and war, against which all civilized persons rebel, but this is no reason to destroy the nucleus of international cooperation and goodwill we have created in the Olympic Movement.” Trying to distance the Olympic movement from the radical politics of the moment, he added, “You don’t find hippies, yippies or beatniks on sports grounds.”

But there were principled activist-athletes on the playing fields of 1968. Smith and Carlos were not lone renegades; they were part of a political movement rooted in athletic achievement. In the United States, Harry Edwards, a sociologist and political organizer, had helped found the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) in 1967. At a press conference in December of that year, the group unveiled six demands, which it listed as following:

  1.  Restoration of Muhammad Ali’s title and right to box in this country.
  2.  Removal of the anti-Semitic and anti-black personality Avery Brundage from his post as Chairman of the International Olympic Committee.
  3.  Curtailment of participation of all-white teams and indi-viduals from the Union of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia in all United States Olympic Athletic events.
  4.  The addition of at least two black coaches to the men’s track and field coaching staff appointed to coach the 1968 United States Olympic team.
  5.  The appointment of at least two black people to policy-making positions on the United States Olympic Committee.
  6.  The complete desegregation of the bigot-dominated and racist New York Athletic Club. 

The IOC president and the injustices emanating from South Africa sat in the center of OPHR’s sites, evidence of the group’s global vision. Tommie Smith stressed in his autobiography that the OPHR’s name highlighted “human rights, not civil rights—nothing to do with the Panthers or Black Power—all humanity, even those who denied us ours.” Yet improving the lives of black people was a central goal. Writing retrospectively, Edwards identified OPHR’s key aims: “to stage an international protest of the persistent and systematic violation of black people’s human rights in the United States” and “to expose America’s historical exploitation of black athletes as political propaganda tools in both the national and international arenas.”

To press toward these goals, the OPHR threatened to orchestrate a boycott of the 1968 Games. In April, to combat apartheid, sixty-five US athletes signed on to a list that sup-ported a boycott if South Africa were allowed to participate. Numerous prominent athletes signed, including Arthur Ashe, Wilt Chamberlain, Jim Bouton, Len Wilkins, Oscar Robertson, Jackie Robinson, and Ruben Amaro. The track stars John Carlos and Lee Evans also joined. A few months earlier, Jackie Robinson led a group of famous athletes, including Tommie Smith, Dave Bing, Bob Gibson and K. C. Jones, pushing for South Africa to be banned from the Games. Months of activist campaigning—often led by athletes themselves—built up to Smith and Carlos’s act of defiance. Movements created space for the athletes’ iconic moment.

Meanwhile, the powerful were becoming nervous. In July 1968, Vincent X. Flaherty, a Los Angeles sports journalist, wrote Brundage a letter that promised to craft a critical article on the boycott threat. Flaherty asked: “Why can’t the Negro athletes sign now as to their intentions? Why can’t recalitrants [sic] be barred now so as to avoid any possible disgraceful demonstrations[?]” Ditching even the pretense of journalistic objectivity, he also suggested ignoring OPHR figure Harry Edwards: “I think this man Edward’s [sic] name should be kept out of print, and I also think the IOC should take a definitive action.” He added, “I think you will agree this sort of thing has no place in the Olympics as a whole, nor does it have any right to be foisted upon the host country.” Indeed the IOC president agreed. In less than two weeks Brundage responded: “The action of Edwards is directed against the people of the United States … It is unfortunate that so much publicity is given to these people.” He continued, “The Olympic Games have given the negro an opportunity to display his talents on a completely equal basis, and it is outrageous that they should be used for political purposes.” This interaction underlines what sociologist Ben Carrington calls “the fear of the black athlete” as rooted in “the projection of white masculinist fantasies of domination [and] control.” The powerful were squirming.

The sports media establishment tended to agree with the Brundage line, urging the athletes to shut up and play. Once Smith and Carlos took their stand on the medal stand, many commentators became outright hostile. Arthur Daley of the New York Times wrote, “Smith and Carlos brought their world smack into the Olympic Games, where it did not belong, and created a shattering situation that shook this international sports carnival to its very core. They were also divisive.” Brent Musburger, writing for the Chicago American, railed against the “black-skinned storm troopers” he deemed “unimaginative blokes.” He fumed: “One gets a little tired of having the United States run down by athletes who are enjoying themselves at the expense of their country. Protesting and working constructively against racism in the United States is one thing, but airing one’s dirty clothing before the entire world during a fun-and-games tournament was no more than a juvenile gesture by a couple of athletes who should have known better.” The New York Times found division within the US squad. The gold-medal-winning boxer George Foreman, who dismissed their efforts, told the paper: “That’s for college kids. They live in another world.”

Brundage was livid with Smith and Carlos. He pressured the US Olympic Committee to suspend the athletes from the team and dismiss them from the Olympic Village. The USOC obliged, releasing a statement that read in part, “The United States Olympic Committee expresses its profound regrets to the International Olympic Committee, to the Mexican Organizing Committee and to the people of Mexico for the discourtesy displayed by two members of its team in depart-ing from tradition during a victory ceremony at the Olympic Stadium on October 16th.” The USOC labeled their act “untypical exhibitionism” that “violates the basic standards of sportsmanship and good manners.” Pivoting to threat, it then noted, “A repetition of such incidents by other members of the US team can only be considered a willful disregard of Olympic principles that would warrant the severest penal-ties.” This threat was echoed by the IOC official Lord David Burghley—also known as the Marquess of Exeter—who said: “I will not countenance such actions again. I’ll refuse to hold a victory ceremony if any such attempt is made again.”

Brundage received a trailer load of mail regarding the Smith and Carlos affair and how he handled it. Many defended the act of dissent. One letter writer told Brundage, “A wonderful week of sportsmanship has been spoiled for me by the punishment of the young American athletes,” and added, “these young men understood that justice and brotherhood are the only gold medal worth having, and they had the courage to stand up and say so.” Another alluded to South Africa’s exclusion from the Games and asked: “Yet two Negro athletes were expelled for ‘mixing politics and athletics.’ How hypocritical can you get?!” One critic from Los Angeles slammed “the senseless, idiotic, racist reaction of our Olympic Committee.” He concluded that Carlos and Smith “will be greeted as black power heroes by an incensed black America, more convinced than ever that white America has nothing but hatred for the black man.” He closed by promising to send a $25 check to the Urban League “in the hopes that they can achieve brotherhood in the world, since you have so badly failed.”

Numerous people writing Brundage specified that they were white before accusing the International Olympic Committee of undermining “one of the United States’ most cherished traditions, the right to speak out” and taking action that was “disgusting, uncalled for, narrow-minded, and indicative of your prejudice.” Many called the suspension of Smith and Carlos “unduly harsh treatment for their quiet and digni-fied act of protest against conditions in their country. They were not protesting the Olympic Committee, or the games, or Mexico, or any other country.” Telegrams flooded in from around the world from groups like the Athletex Welfare Association of Nigeria and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Jesse Jackson wrote a telegram directly to Tommie Smith congratulating him for his courageous act, stating, “You may have been on the wrong side of the Olympic Committee, but on the right side of history.” He issued Smith an open invitation to come speak at the SCLC’s breadbasket community meetings, expenses paid.

Many, however, weighed in to chastise Carlos and Smith and offer support to Brundage. Racism sometimes showed through, as in a letter from Omaha, Nebraska, that read:

The actions of the two Negroes, Smith and Carlos, was a national disgrace. I hope you stick to your decision to keep them off the team. Some others should be booted off, too. Our State Dept. should take action on such traitors, but for political expediency they won’t. The white man owes the Negro nothing. Let some of them return to the stone age delights of tribal Africa. In all time the Negro race is the only race to have contributed nothing toward civilization. They do excell [sic] in motor co-ordination.

Brundage often took the time to respond to letter writers who supported the dismissal of Smith and Carlos. Frequently he wrote, “Good manners and sportsmanship are more important than athletic ability.” Among the other sentiments he expressed: “We do not propose to permit demonstrations of any kind at the Olympic Games”; “The boys were sent home, but they should not have been there in the first place”; “As a matter of fact people of that kind should not have been on the Olympic team at all. This was not a school boy prank as some seem to think … it left international repercussions very harmful to our country”; “You are exactly right and your views have been supported by all true United States citizens. The action of these negroes was an insult to the Mexican hosts and a disgrace to the United States.”

After the Games, Brundage bristled over the possible inclusion of Smith and Carlos in the official Olympic film. In a letter to the chair of the Mexico City Organizing Committee, Brundage railed about “the rumors that have reached my ears about the use of pictures of the nasty demonstration against the United States flag by negroes in the official film of the Games of the XIX Olympiad.” He went on to argue, “It had nothing to do with sport, it was a shameful abuse of hospitality and it has no more place in the record of the Games than the gunfire at Tlaltelolco.” He reiterated his point by concluding, “With the hope that this objectionable feature will be eliminated, I am.” In a separate letter, Mexican IOC member José de J. Clark wrote, “To beg you that said scene be omitted from the official film of the Olympic Games.” The Mexico City Olympic organizers wrote back with a compromise: excluding the protest by Smith and Carlos in the version of the film sent to the official IOC archive and to NOCs, but keeping it in the copies that would shown commercially. Brundage’s biographer notes: “Brundage was clearly unable in this instance to apply the aesthetic criteria that he relied upon in his eloquent defense of Leni Riefenstahl’s film of the 1936 games. The Nazi salute and the swastika were part of the Gesamtkunstwerk of the Olympic ceremony, but the black-power salute and the black berets were somehow ‘political’.”

Both Carlos and Smith paid a high price for their actions. They received a steady stream of threats on their lives. They were pilloried in the press. Jobs were scarce. They lost marriages to the stress. Carlos and Smith’s own relationship strained as friction mounted between them. Peter Norman, who stood with them in solidarity on the medal stand, was treated like a pariah in Australia. Despite posting times that would qualify him for the 1972 Games, he was cut from the Australia squad. When Sydney hosted the 2000 Olympics, Norman was not officially acknowledged.

Yet Smith, Carlos, and Norman never backtracked, and history has vindicated them. Even President Barack Obama publicly praised Carlos and Smith. “To signify in that Olympics that there was more work to do, to acknowledge the injustices that were still taking place, I think that was a breakthrough moment in an overall push to move this country towards a more equal and more just society,” he said, “I think that what they did was in the best tradition of American protest.” This is an example of the common tendency to revere activists the further they recede in the rearview mirror of history. The entire episode also highlights, as the sociologist Douglas Hartmann puts it, “the thrill of victory and the agony of activism,” and helps us understand why more Olympic athletes don’t use their high-profile athletic stage to engage politics.

The athlete-activism did not end with Carlos and Smith. Vera Caslavska, the most successful Czech gymnast in the history of the Olympics, also took a political stand on the medal stand. Two months before the Mexico City Games commenced, the Soviet Union led an invasion of Czechoslovakia in order to crush the “Prague Spring,” inklings of democracy—or at least moves toward less surveillance and repression—that aimed to loosen the Soviet stranglehold on the country. The Czechoslovak National Olympic Committee nearly opted to withdraw from the 1968 Games, as the incursion made training nearly impossible for athletes and major transatlantic airlines were not flying out of Prague. Less than a month before the Games’ opening ceremony, Czechoslovakia decided to press ahead and send its 100-strong team to Mexico City.

Caslavska had already established herself as a top-flight gymnast, winning three gold medals and a silver at the Tokyo 1964 Olympics. She had also shown herself to be an athlete willing to speak out, signing onto the Manifesto of 2,000 Words in April 1968, which protested Soviet hegemony in Czechoslovakia. Four months later, the Soviets invaded and Caslavska fled into hiding where she trained in suboptimal, stressful conditions. But with the Soviet-led assault as a political backdrop, Caslavska shined in Mexico City, winning four more gold medals and two silvers. In the process, she beat out archrival Soviet gymnasts, to the ecstatic cheers of local spectators, and not simply because she selected the “Mexican Hat Dance” as the accompaniment for her final floor performance. Only days after Carlos and Smith thrust their fists skyward, Caslavska made her own political statement on the medal stand, if a more subtle one, dipping her head in silent protest during the Russian national anthem. Caslavska was clearly motivated by politics. “I am a Czechoslovak citizen,” she later said. “We all tried harder to win in Mexico because it would turn the eyes of the world on our unfortunate country.” She paid a price for her principles. The Soviet-compliant government in Prague forbade her from traveling abroad or from competing in gymnastics. But years later, with another significant shift in the political winds and the rise of Vaclav Havel, Caslavska would become the head of the Czech National Olympic Committee as well as the eighth woman coopted as a member of the IOC.

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Power Games

Power Games

The Olympics have a checkered, sometimes scandalous, political history. Jules Boykoff, a former US Olympic team member, takes readers from the event’s nineteenth-century origins, through the Games’...