Two Brave Olympians: The History of Anti-Racist Protest in Sport


On October 16th 1968, two African-American athletes raised black-gloved fists on the Olympic podium in one of the most overt political statements ever made in a sporting arena, and indeed one of the most recognisable images of the 20th century. 

Tommie Smith and John Carlos had won gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200-metre sprint at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, with Smith even breaking the world record time for the distance. But because of their protest, which represented support of universal human rights but was also affiliated with the Black Panthers, they were both suspended from the USA Olympic team, and were expelled from the Games overall.

This symbolic event is widely accepted as the beginning of a long and complex history of racism and racial activism in sport, a theme which has been particularly prominent in connection with the Black Lives Matter movement ever since Donald Trump was elected President of the USA in 2016.

Colin Kaepernick, a former American football player in the NFL, was the first athlete to bring anti-racist activism in sport into contemporary public consciousness when, on 1st September 2016, he knelt during the American national anthem before a match. This gesture, seen as hugely defiant in the US, was inspired by Martin Luther King who knelt in prayer alongside other Civil Rights protestors during his Selma march in 1965.

However, Kaepernick was not applauded for his attempt to raise awareness of injustice and police brutality against the black population. The NFL did not support the act, and predictably President Trump was outwardly disgusted by it, saying that it disrespected the American flag and all the veterans who had fought for it. Nevertheless, athletes across America took the knee during the anthem in the following months, with the act becoming widespread across basketball and baseball as well as football.

It was not until this year that the movement made it to the UK. Since the death of black man George Floyd under the knee of a white police officer on 25th May this year, the world has reacted with rage and impassioned protest against police brutality and racism.

When the Premier League restarted on 17th June, all teams bore kits which replaced players’ names with ‘Black Lives Matter’, and the BLM logo on the sleeve. Many games also began with players and referees kneeling in silence around the centre circle in solidarity with the cause before kick-off.

As cricket has returned, both English and West Indies squads and officials took a knee before start-of-play in the first test match of the season in Southampton, some with raised fists. Both teams also sported BLM logos on their shirts.

Lewis Hamilton is the latest athlete to join the movement, as he raised his fist on the podium after winning the Styrian Grand Prix on 12th July in a move powerfully evocative of Smith and Carlos’ over five decades ago. The legacy of the two Olympians is palpable in sport’s present-day engagement with racial injustice, and goes to show that athletes continue to be inspiring advocates for the betterment of society.

But at the same time, it’s outrageous that more than 50 years on from the 1968 Games, we still have to protest for basic societal equality and safety for all. We can only hope that sport’s widespread support of Black Lives Matter can help kickstart some real change.


Features Editor

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