When The Olympics & Politics Mix: #3 – The 1968 ‘Black Power’ Games

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The Olympics have always been more than just about sport; and are now fully  intwined with world events and politics. So, in honour of the London 2012 Olympic & Paralympic games, the politics section of Wessex Scene are giving a countdown of the top 5 most politicized Olympics. Enjoy.

Yoshinori Sakai

Whilst political interference and involvement in the Olympics truly began from the word go – and reached steam in the 1950s – it wasn’t until the 60s when countries (and people) began to understand how important the Olympics could be to send out a message on a truly global scale. Boycotts were no longer the fashion, but protests.

In the 1960 Rome Games, Taiwan protested against having to drop the name ‘Republic of China’; in 1964, in a truly symbolic move, Japan chose 19-year old Yoshinori Sakai to light the Olympic flame at Tokyo – chosen as he was born the day after the atomic bomb struck Hiroshima. He was a symbol of Japan’s postwar reconstruction, prosperity and peace.

Yet, these was nothing compared to what would come four years later at the 1968 games –  number three of our countdown with the most famous and symbolic Olympic protest ever. At the time, the world was in a time of political unrest and ‘people power’. Europe had experienced many student protests, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, whilst the Cold War rumbled on with the US still in Vietnam and the USSR invading Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring.

Protestors in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas

The 1968 games were an Olympics steeped in controversy even before they began. With Mexico City chosen as the host, the world’s attention turned towards Latin American  for the continent’s first Olympic games. Mexico was also in some political turmoil with many student protests over the preceding summer, particularly over the invasion and occupation of the Dominican Republic by the US as well as dissatisfaction with the ruling PRI regime; and want of democracy. The protesters saw the Olympics as a unique opportunity to air their grief and problems on the world stage.

Mexican President Diaz Ortaz, concerned over the image of the country with the world watching, tried to crack down on these protests with step up of army and police presence. Such action only increased the protests in size and support with trade unions joining in, as well as infamous occupation of University campuses.

Students held at gunpoint

10 days before the Olympics began, this tension boiled over. On October 2nd, over 10,000 university students gathered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas for a peaceful rally. Despite its benign nature, increased police and military presence surrounded the area as they tried to arrest some of the movement’s leaders. After shots were fired, the army began to shoot into the crowd as well as holding protestors at gunpoint. For many years, who was to blame was questioned; recent documents show that the government employed snipers to fire on fellow troops, thus provoking them to open fire on the students and other protestors. The Tlatelolco Massacre, as it would be named, killed over 44 people, with estimates ranging from 30 to around 300. The Olympics, in response, were only postponed for 36 hours.

For most, however, this event barely featured as significant moment of the games. Instead, the most important occurrence was at the men’s 200m medal ceremony. As the American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who had won the gold and bronze respectively, stood for the Star Spangled Banner; both men bowed their heads, wore no shoes with black socks and raised a black gloved fist.

It was a symbolic protest against the racial segregation still prevalent in their country  – the black socks representing black poverty – and a symbol of support for the Black Power movement; one seen on a global scale that resonated worldwide. It was one of the most overtly political statements of Olympic history and the photo became one of the most favourite sporting images ever.

What then of the athletes? Smith and Carlos – who had won gold and bronze respectively – were booed by the crowd and quickly suspended from the US team by the IOC due to their desire to keep sports and politics separate. Avery Brundage, then IOC president, was particularly critical of the move saying it breached the fundamental principles of the games. Indeed, it was he who authorised the ban and when the US Olympic Committee refused, he threatened to kick out the whole US team.

It was not just the IOC who disproved of the action; they were ostracized by US sporting teams for many years with the famous magazine Time publishing a front cover of the incident with the words ‘Angrier, Nastier, Uglier’. A CBS broadcaster, Brent Musburger, referred to them as “black-skinned storm troopers”. The athletes also received abuse for many years with their families receiving death threats. Both struggled to find decent work afterwards; Smith resorting to street-cleaning for a while to provide for his family. Both had far worst losses; Smith claiming his mother died prematurely because she struggled to deal with the death threats; whilst Carlos blamed the aftermath of the events for the suicide of his wife in 1977.

A CBS broadcaster, Brent Musburger, referred to them as “black-skinned storm troopers”

It was, undoubtedly, a large overreaction to what was a dignified and understated form of protest. The IOC had, after all, remained silent on the many Nazi Salutes of the 1936 games. Carlos and Smith always maintained, as well, that the fist was a salute for all human rights. Both were members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) – whose leader had actually suggested a boycott of the games by black athletes – and thus, in many ways, had chosen the less symbolic route.

One must not forget the other man on the podium; the Australian silver-medalist Peter Norman who had supported the salute being a member of the OPHR himself as well as a critic of his own nation’s ‘White Australian Policy’, which restricted non-white immigration to Australia. He too suffered on his return to Australia. In fact, it was Norman who had saved the day with the protest – both US athletes were meant to bring gloves; Carlos forgot his, and it was Norman who suggested that he could wear Smith’s left-handed glove. Or some the story goes. Carlos and Smith were pallbearers at Peter Norman’s funeral in 2006.

“To stand up and be heard, no matter the cost, no matter the price.”

John Carlos

However, Smith and Carlos have now been honored for the symbol of humanity and became important figures in civil rights movements, bringing the attention to such rights to a greater global level. They are  important figures for those who suffered and suffer discrimination whilst partaking in sports. Both have received awards and statues in their honour with a documentary of the event, Salute, released in 2008. All three athletes have been referred to as the “living embodiments of Olympic idealism.”

And despite their sacrifices and personal losses, the power of what they did has never lead to regret the salute. As Carlos once said; “To stand up and be heard, no matter the cost, no matter the price.” The truth Olympic spirit.

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