In the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medallists in the 200m raised their fists in solidarity with the American Civil Rights Movement on the rostrum in a black power salute. The rest is history.
Google the words ‘iconic’ and ‘Olympics’ and this is the image you will see time and time again. It’s become probably the most iconic photograph from all the Olympic Games and a seminal moment in black America’s struggle for Civil Rights. Now there are statues dedicated to these men at San Jose State College where they studied and ran on scholarships. They are considered heroes.
But it wasn’t always that way. The very universities that honour the men today were part of the wide spread institutional racism that saw them more than happy to exploit black Americans on the running track but deny them access to white-only training facilities. In 1968, the American Civil Rights Movement was galvanising and the winds of change were very much in the air. The Rev. Martin Luther King had been assassinated that year making a tense situation in America even worse and the Olympic Council had made it’s views very clear that they would not welcome any political demonstrations at the games, even trying to rope in Jessie Owens to try and deter the black Americans bound for the Games from doing so.
On the morning of 16th October 1968 Tommie Smith stormed to a world record time of 19.83 seconds and a gold medal. Behind him came in Australian Peter Norman and then American John Carlos. The two Americans knew they were going to make some kind of gesture of support for the civil rights movement but they didn’t know what it would be. They formed a plan in the waiting room deep within the Olympic Stadium while waiting to take the rostrum. Peter Norman, the white Australian was asked if he objected which he didn’t. Indeed he was actively involved in helping the Americans plan it. As they only had one pair of gloves he suggested that they split the pair, that’s why you see two different hands raised.
The protest was this; the two Americans accepted their medals shoeless wearing only black socks to represent black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride Carlos wore his tracksuit top unzipped to show solidarity with the blue collar workers of America and beads around his neck which was ‘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 boats in the middle passage’. All three athletes wore Olympic Project for Human Rights badges including Norman, a critic of the White Australia Policy. When the band played the Star Spangled Banner the Americans bowed their heads and raised their gloved, closed fists in salute. This is the image that endures.
Some newspapers reported at the time that a ring of boos echoed out around the stadium while others claimed that the event barely registered with the crowd. The athletes returned to a tidal wave of criticism in America with TIME magazine ran an issue with the five ringed Olympic logo with the words, ‘Angrier, Nastier, Uglier’, replacing the traditional Olympic motto ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’. Smith and Carlos were largely ostracised by the US sporting establishment they continued in athletics for a short time but soon both found their way into the NFL. A knee injury ended Carlos career prematurely and during the 70’s he fell on hard times, in 1977 his wife committed suicide, which triggered a period of depression for him. Eventually through the 90’s the athletes began to receive the recognition they deserved and were accepted again by the US Olympic family. Today they make a living as public speakers. In 2008 Smith and Carlos both received the Arthur Ashe Courage award for their actions.
Peter Norman returned to Australia and was banned from competition for two years, the Australian Media ostracised him. He was completely overlooked for any involvement for with the Sydney Olympic Games in Sydney 2000, but was invited by the Americans to join their party when they heard his native country had failed him. When the statue of the protest was unveiled the figure of Norman is missing, creators claim it as an invitation to the onlooker to take a stand. Norman died of a heart-attack in 2006 at the age of 64 Carlos and Smith were pal bearers at his funeral.
While the protest of the Americans has gone down in history it is only now that we are coming to realise the significance of the protest in that it featured three men and not two and that the image is a stark portrait of the spirit of protest, but also of the spirit of brotherhood. Before taking the rostrum, the Americans had asked Norman for his support. ‘They asked Norman if he believed in human rights. He said he did. They asked him if he believed in God, Norman who came from a Salvation Army background said he believed strongly in God. “We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat. He said ‘I’ll stand with you. “Carlos said he expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes. He didn’t. “I saw love”.
By Hugo Mc Cafferty