Gesture that shook the world
When two African American sprinters raised their fists in a Black Power salute at the Mexico Olympics 50 years ago, the incident sent shockwaves around the globe
IT WAS a signal of resistance and defiance that is considered one of the most overtly political gestures in the history of sport – and one which continues to resonate today, nearly 50 years later.
On October 16, 1968, at the summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, the medals for the men’s 200metre sprint were hung around the necks of US athletes Tommie Smith (gold) and John Carlos (bronze) as the Star-Spangled Banner began to play.
It was then that the two men solemnly bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved fists. They kept them raised until the American national anthem had finished.
Their iconic Black Power salute shocked the world. It was a time of enormous racial tension in the United States, and the gesture was front-page news.
The two men took their stand just four years after Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act, and in the wake of the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr – within two months of each other – earlier that year.
Millions were outraged. But millions more were thrilled by two high-achieving sportsmen expressing their disillusionment with a nation that so often fell short of its promises of equality for all.
Yet their moment on the podium was to cost them dear – consequences which they were prepared to face with their eyes wide open.
“The first thing I thought was, the shackles have been broken,” said Carlos, now 73, in a recent interview as he cast his mind back. “I had a moral obligation to step up. Morality was a far greater force than the rules and regulations [the Olympic Committee] had.”
As he explained in his book The John Carlos Story, in the seconds between mounting the podium and the anthem starting he found himself reflecting upon the exhortations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X to “be true to yourself even when it hurts”, and thinking about the hardships his own family had endured as black Americans.
His final thought before the band played? “Damn, when this thing is done, it can’t be taken back.”
And in that final moment of reflection, he and Smith, now 74, raised their arms.
“You could have heard a frog p*** on cotton,” he wrote. “There’s something awful about hearing 50,000 people go silent, like being in the eye of a hurricane.”
And then the dam burst. As the national anthem played, the crowd began to boo them. Then some people began to scream the national anthem. Taunts gave way to jeering as missiles landed on the arena floor and racist abuse seared the air. “The fire,” writes Carlos, “was all around me… they screamed it to the point where it seemed less a national anthem than a barbaric call to arms.”
HOWEVER, although the protest had been something that the two athletes had carefully planned, one aspect wasn’t. The iconic photograph of their raised fists reveals that while Smith’s right hand gave the traditional Black Power gesture, Carlos saluted with his left.
The other man on the podium – the Australian silver medallist Peter Norman – may not have raised either hand but it later emerged he had been instrumental in orchestrating events behind the scenes.
For while both the US athletes had intended to bring a pair of black gloves to the ceremony, Carlos had accidentally left his behind in the Olympic Village.
It was Norman who suggested that Carlos should wear Smith’s left-handed glove. The resulting gesture did not diminish the intensity of their action. As Smith said later: “If I win I am an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
However, the determination of Smith and Carlos to highlight racial inequality had a price. The men knew it would become, in Carlos’s words, “a moment of truth”. And they knew that by protesting they might lose everything.
The punishment for defying Olympic rules was swift. Apart from being ordered to leave the stadium, they were suspended from the US team and the Olympic village. The LA Times accused them of engaging in a Nazi-like salute and such was the level of vilification at home that they even received death threats.
The following day they were stripped of their medals. At a press conference on October 17, Olympic president Avery Brundage deplored their “outrageous stance” which, he said, repudiated “the basic principles of the Olympic Games”.
BUT the athletes refused to apologise because they felt they had nothing to apologise for. “We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country,” Smith said years later in a documentary on the Games.
“I don’t like the idea of people looking at it as negative. There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag – not symbolising a hatred for it.”
After their track careers, Smith became a sociology professor and a track and field coach at Santa Monica College. Carlos worked as a guidance counsellor at Palm Springs High School in California. Both were clearly educated and sensitive high-achievers who were pushed to do something extraordinary in a bid to shake up the system.
“God told the angels that day, ‘Take a step back – I’m gonna have to do this myself’,” was how Carlos once explained it.
As for Peter Norman, the Australian silver medallist who stood alongside Smith and Carlos that day, he showed further solidarity by wearing an Olympic Project For Human Rights badge during the medal ceremony. He was frozen out of future Games selection and airbrushed from Australian Olympic history until recently.
“[Peter] said, ‘I’ll stand with you’,” Carlos said later. And when the Australian athlete died in 2006, both Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral.
In a belated recognition of Norman’s stance that day Australian authorities this week announced that they were to erect a statue of him outside a stadium in Melbourne.
Carlos once said that he expected to see fear in Peter Norman’s eyes before the medal ceremony but says he saw no fear. Instead, he said: “I saw love.”
MORAL STANCE: Smith raises his right hand, Carlos his left in their 1968 protest against US racial inequality. Australian silver medallist Peter Norman backed them and in 2006 Smith (left) and Carlos were his pallbearers