Power plays

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents -

As African Amer­i­can ath­letes face cen­sure for protest­ing dur­ing the na­tional an­them, Richard Askwith looks back on a long his­tory of sports­peo­ple tak­ing a stand

Fifty years ago, sport­ing greats sac­ri­ficed their ca­reers, ru­ined their home lives and en­dured death threats to take a stand against po­lit­i­cal in­jus­tice. Will the re­cent protests by NFL foot­ballers go the same way? By Richard Askwith

Many things can go wrong in the life of an elite ath­lete. In­jury and loss of form are the most com­mon haz­ards. But few things are so likely to wreck your ca­reer as an at­tack of po­lit­i­cal con­science. This strange truth is cur­rently be­ing demon­strated in a sport­ing drama that has been gath­er­ing mo­men­tum in the United States for the past five years.

It be­gan in July 2013, with the con­tro­ver­sial ac­quit­tal of Ge­orge Zim­mer­man for the shoot­ing of Trayvon Martin in San­ford, Florida. The ver­dict spawned a new, broad-based US protest move­ment: #Black­lives­mat­ter. You do not have to en­dorse all that has been said and done un­der the hash­tag’s shel­ter to ap­pre­ci­ate the power of the un­der­ly­ing griev­ance. Mil­lions of black Amer­i­cans ob­ject to their coun­try’s mass in­car­cer­a­tions that seem racially bi­ased and, in par­tic­u­lar, to polic­ing meth­ods that ap­pear to place neg­li­gi­ble value on their lives. In 2016, 169 un­armed black peo­ple were shot dead by US po­lice of­fi­cers; in 2015, there were 234.

Over the past five years, the causes célèbres have mul­ti­plied: Michael Brown, Kalief Brow­der Eric Garner, Jonathan Fer­rell, Stephon Clark. Fuelled by so­cial me­dia, the widen­ing groundswell of out­rage has drawn in sports­peo­ple. A col­lege bas­ket­ball player, Ariyana Smith, first linked the protest to the US na­tional an­them, by ly­ing down on court while it was played be­fore a match in Mis­souri in Novem­ber 2014. Colin Kaeper­nick, the San Fran­cisco 49ers quar­ter­back, in­tro­duced it to elite sport, kneel­ing through a pre-match an­them in Au­gust 2016. Within weeks, his team­mate Eric Reid had joined him. Reid was up­set by the killing of an­other young man, Al­ton Ster­ling, in his own home town: ‘This could have hap­pened to any of my fam­ily mem­bers who still live in the area,’ he wrote in the New York Times.

Other black play­ers felt sim­i­larly. The ‘take a knee’ protest gath­ered mo­men­tum. A back­lash fol­lowed. Don­ald Trump led it. The ges­ture im­plied ‘to­tal dis­re­spect of our great coun­try’, claimed the pres­i­dent, who later added that it should be met with the harsh­est re­sponse: ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field now! He’s fired!’

Many shared his view. TV rat­ings suf­fered; spon­sors threat­ened to with­draw ad­ver­tis­ing. NFL ex­ec­u­tives were re­ported to be fu­ri­ous with Kaeper­nick, with one (un­named) al­legedly call­ing him a ‘traitor’. Other ath­letes who have sup­ported the protest have felt the es­tab­lish­ment’s anger. Sev­eral have had in­vi­ta­tions to the White House re­scinded, while the bas­ket­ball player Le­bron James, who has cam­paigned on this and other is­sues, was fa­mously told by Laura In­gra­ham of Fox News to ‘Shut up and drib­ble!’

But Kaeper­nick is now pay­ing the price that ev­ery ath­lete dreads. Since be­com­ing a free agent in 2017, he has not been hired by an­other team. Reid, sim­i­larly, be­came a free agent at the end of last year and has not found a new team. With a new NFL sea­son around the corner, there is lit­tle sign that the protests will cease – and ev­ery chance that oth­ers will join Kaeper­nick and Reid in tast­ing ex­ile from the sport they live for. The con­flict feels un­prece­dented. In fact, it echoes the strug­gles of an ear­lier gen­er­a­tion of sport­ing he­roes, whose no less con­tro­ver­sial protests en­thralled the world 50 years ago.

The world was awash with protests in 1968. From France to Brazil, North­ern Ire­land to Wash­ing­ton, DC, stu­dents, baby-boomers, hip­pies and rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, priv­i­leged and down­trod­den alike, stood shoul­der-to-shoul­der against their gov­ern­ments. To­day, their names are mostly for­got­ten. Yet we still hon­our the hand­ful of sport­ing su­per­stars who stood with them.

Tom­mie Smith, John Car­los, Peter Nor­man, Věra Čáslavská, Emil Zá­topek, Muham­mad Ali. Each had their own part to play in that year’s drama; each was mo­ti­vated by a burn­ing sense of po­lit­i­cal in­jus­tice; each was re­warded with long, soul-de­stroy­ing ret­ri­bu­tion.

You’ll recog­nise a few of the im­ages. The sprint­ers Smith and Car­los, heads bowed on the Olympic podium in Mex­ico, each with one black-gloved fist raised in salute; and per­haps also Čáslavská, the gym­nast, scan­dal­is­ing two medal cer­e­monies with her brazen scowl­ing at the Soviet an­them. Oth­ers played less vis­i­ble roles. The long-dis­tance run­ning hero Zá­topek, a decade af­ter his last race, was merely a spec­ta­tor at the Olympics that Oc­to­ber, yet was fol­lowed all over town by Cze­choslo­vak spies, while the world’s press tried to talk to him about the War­saw Pact in­va­sion that had crushed the Prague Spring six weeks ear­lier. (‘Hush, Emil, they’ll hear you,’ his wife Dana kept in­ter­rupt­ing, when the British jour­nal­ist Christo­pher Brasher tried to in­ter­view him.) Yet there were iconic pho­to­graphs of Zá­topek, too, ral­ly­ing pro­test­ers in Wences­las Square as he de­nounced the Sovi­ets as ‘the gang­sters of the world’.

Ali wasn’t at the Mex­ico Olympics: his pass­port had been con­fis­cated. The great­est boxer of all – who fa­mously ap­peared on the cover of that April’s US Esquire in the guise of a mar­tyred saint – had been stripped of his li­cence and his world ti­tle the pre­vi­ous year for re­fus­ing to go to war in Viet­nam; 1968 should have been his best year yet, but he didn’t fight once. His ab­sence – and ap­peal against his jail sen­tence – over­shad­owed the sport­ing world. Ali’s was one of four causes cited

by Smith and Car­los in Septem­ber 1967, when, as part of the newly formed Olympic Project for Hu­man Rights (OPHR), they called for a boy­cott of the Mex­ico Games. That cam­paign fiz­zled out when the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee (IOC) with­drew its in­vi­ta­tions to apartheid South Africa and Rhode­sia to com­pete, sat­is­fy­ing one of the OPHR’S de­mands. The re­main­ing three – restor­ing Ali’s ti­tle, hir­ing more African Amer­i­can coaches and sack­ing the con­tro­ver­sial Avery Brundage as pres­i­dent of the IOC – weren’t enough to sus­tain a boy­cott move­ment. So Smith and Car­los de­cided to make their point on the medal podium in­stead.

Nei­ther doubted that they would get there. Smith, a 24-year-old Texan, was the world record­holder for 200 me­tres; Car­los, his 23-year-old train­ing part­ner, seemed his only plau­si­ble ri­val. In fact, Peter Nor­man, a white Aus­tralian, pipped Car­los for sil­ver with a run that re­mains a na­tional record, 50 years later. Smith took gold with a world record of 19.83s. When Smith and Car­los shared their plan with Nor­man, he told them: ‘I’ll stand with you.’ He did.

Smith and Car­los’s ges­ture was com­plex in its sym­bol­ism but dev­as­tat­ingly sim­ple in its im­pact. They walked to the podium in black-socked feet, to sym­bol­ise black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf to sym­bol­ise ‘black pride’; Car­los’s string of beads sym­bol­ised lynch­ings. The black glove on Smith’s right fist rep­re­sented ‘the power of black Amer­ica’; that on Car­los’s left, ‘the unity of black Amer­ica’. Each wore an OPHR badge. It was, said Smith, about ‘black dig­nity’.

It was also about courage. Six months ear­lier, Martin Luther King had been mur­dered in Mem­phis; Robert F Kennedy, the civil rights move­ment’s most pow­er­ful cham­pion in Wash­ing­ton, was gunned down two months later. Days be­fore the Games, an un­told num­ber of demon­strat­ing stu­dents – the death toll is usu­ally reck­oned in the hun­dreds – had been mas­sa­cred in Mex­ico City’s Tlatelolco dis­trict by se­cu­rity forces. Smith wrote later that, as the US an­them played, ‘My head was bowed, and in­side that bowed head, I prayed – prayed that the next sound I would hear… would not be a gun­shot.’

In­stead, there was shocked si­lence; then some boo­ing; then, within hours, the back­lash. Smith and Car­los were ex­pelled from the US team, banned per­ma­nently from in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion and, af­ter two days, forced to leave Mex­ico. Brundage de­nounced them for hav­ing ‘vi­o­lated one of the ba­sic prin­ci­ples of the Olympic Games: that pol­i­tics play no part what­so­ever in them’ – which was rich com­ing from a man who had made Nazi salutes at the 1936 Ber­lin Games. Some ex­pressed sym­pa­thy: ‘The Amer­i­can Ne­groes are right to protest,’ said British marathon run­ner Jim Alder. ‘They may be Amer­i­cans here, but they are n—s back home.’ ‘Why run in Mex­ico and crawl at home?’ asked a spec­ta­tor’s plac­ard. The me­dia took Brundage’s side. Smith and Car­los were de­nounced as ‘black-skinned storm troop­ers’ who were ‘con­temp­tu­ous of the United States’. It would be years be­fore the death threats sub­sided. Nor­man fared lit­tle bet­ter. A de­vout Chris­tian, he too had worn an OPHR badge on the podium, no big­ger than his sil­ver medal. He never ran for Aus­tralia again. ‘It was a life-chang­ing mo­ment for him,’ says his daugh­ter, Janita. ‘But he wasn’t pre­pared for the af­ter­math.’ He ran the 200m qual­i­fy­ing time for the 1972 Olympics 13 times, yet he was not se­lected. The Aus­tralian Olympic Com­mit­tee in­sists that he was not black­balled, yet it is hard to imag­ine an­other ex­pla­na­tion. ‘I would have dearly loved to go to Mu­nich,’ said Nor­man to­wards the end of his life, ‘but I’d earned the frown­ing eyes of the pow­ers that be.’

Ten days af­ter the Black Power salutes, the Com­mu­nist bloc got its own podium scan­dal. Věra Čáslavská – like Ali in box­ing and her com­pa­triot Zá­topek in en­durance run­ning – was much more than a cham­pion in her sport. She had taken women’s gym­nas­tics to a hith­erto unimag­ined level. Like Zá­topek, she had pub­licly iden­ti­fied her­self that sum­mer with the Cze­choslo­vak re­formists’ cause of ‘so­cial­ism with a hu­man face’. When the War­saw Pact in­vaded on 20 Au­gust, she went into hid­ing, fin­ish­ing her Olympic prepa­ra­tions by swing­ing from trees on a re­mote moun­tain. In Mex­ico, she won medals and hearts with equal ease. But the ease dis­guised a fu­ri­ous am­bi­tion: she was, she said later, ‘de­ter­mined to sweat blood to de­feat the in­vaders’ rep­re­sen­ta­tives’. But the Soviet Union was equally de­ter­mined that its gym­nasts should not be hu­mil­i­ated by a clean sweep of Cze­choslo­vak golds. Bizarre late judg­ing de­ci­sions re­sulted in Čáslavská miss­ing out on one gold medal and shar­ing an­other. (That still left her three of her own.) Twice, on the podium, she lis­tened to the Soviet an­them; twice she used her pow­ers of phys­i­cal self-ex­pres­sion to make her dis­gust plain for any­one to see.

‘I prayed the next sound I would hear would not be a gun­shot’

The Com­mu­nist au­thor­i­ties said noth­ing. Only many months later did her fate be­come known. Čáslavská would not be rep­re­sent­ing her coun­try again. She was banned from for­eign travel. Nor, for many years, was she al­lowed to coach. For a while, she earned her liv­ing as a cleaner. She later con­fessed that, within 12 months of win­ning them, ‘I started to hate my medals.’

Emil Zá­topek, once he too had been ush­ered back be­hind the Iron Cur­tain, be­came sim­i­larly un­ob­tain­able. (He had been al­lowed to go to Mex­ico, un­der su­per­vi­sion, for fear that keep­ing him at home would cause a greater scan­dal.) The great­est dis­tance run­ner the world had seen – as cel­e­brated in his prime as Ali in his – was stripped of his role in sport, ex­pelled from the army and pre­vented from work­ing in Prague. In­stead, he be­came an itin­er­ant ru­ral labourer, far from his beloved wife and, in­creas­ingly, drunk and de­pressed. Ap­proached by an ad­mirer in the early 1970s, he warned him sadly: ‘I am not the Zá­topek you used to know.’

You would ex­pect such vin­dic­tive treat­ment of dis­sent in a com­mu­nist tyranny. It’s the match­ing per­se­cu­tion from the sport­ing es­tab­lish­ments of the West that still shocks. Yet his­tory’s ver­dict on the protest mar­tyrs made a non­sense of both re­sponses. Ali, forced to miss four years of what would have been his sport­ing prime, was the first to shake off pariah sta­tus. His li­cence was re­stored in 1971. By 1974 he was world cham­pion again. There­after he was ven­er­ated as a bea­con of moral as well as sport­ing great­ness – the kind of celebrity with whom pres­i­dents and sports ad­min­is­tra­tors were soon ea­ger to as­so­ciate them­selves.

Oth­ers waited longer. Čáslavská and Zá­topek were fully re­ha­bil­i­tated in the 1990s – al­though only af­ter a rev­o­lu­tion had over­thrown Soviet-led com­mu­nism. Both were scarred by their pun­ish­ment. So were Smith and Car­los, who strug­gled for years with poverty, in­tim­i­da­tion and ex­clu­sion. In 1977, Car­los’s wife took her own life. Yet by 2005 the two men had been re­warded with stat­ues out­side San José State Univer­sity, their alma mater. The pose de­picted – heads bowed, fists raised – was un­mis­tak­able. In 2016, Time mag­a­zine named John Do­mi­nis’s shot of the Black Power salutes as one of the 100 most in­flu­en­tial pho­to­graphs ever taken.

Even Peter Nor­man had been re­ha­bil­i­tated by then, al­beit posthu­mously. Aus­tralia’s great­est male sprinter died in 2006, still snubbed by his na­tion’s sport­ing pow­ers. There had been no place of hon­our for him when Syd­ney hosted the Olympics in 2000 – he at­tended as a guest of the US Olympic Com­mit­tee. Yet the wider world was start­ing to ac­knowl­edge his stature.

While Smith and Car­los flew to Aus­tralia to be his pall-bear­ers, the US Olympic Track and Field Fed­er­a­tion de­clared the day of his fu­neral Peter Nor­man Day. Nonethe­less, says Janita, ‘I don’t think he was happy in later life. He never re­gret­ted his de­ci­sion, but he came back from Mex­ico a dif­fer­ent per­son.’

In 2012, Aus­tralia’s par­lia­ment for­mally apol­o­gised for the na­tion’s treat­ment of Nor­man. This sum­mer, the Aus­tralian Olympic As­so­ci­a­tion awarded him a post­hu­mous Olympic Or­der of Merit. ‘He’s al­ways been em­braced by so­cial ac­tivists,’ says Janita. ‘But now he’s al­most moved into the main­stream.’

Has the world changed? Per­haps. ‘There’s an in­nate de­cency in West­ern democ­ra­cies,’ ar­gues Harry Ed­wards, the ath­lete-turned-aca­demic who founded the OPHR, and who is now pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of so­ci­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. ‘Peo­ple may find a mes­sage hard to ac­cept at first. But when you are right, morally and po­lit­i­cally, peo­ple come around and un­der­stand.’ An­other view is that the pas­sage of time has made the podium pro­test­ers of 1968 seem safe. Rawer ver­sions of their mes­sages re­main un­wel­come. When the Aus­tralian Rules foot­baller Adam Goodes drew at­ten­tion to dis­crim­i­na­tion against Aus­tralia’s in­dige­nous peo­ples in 2015, he was booed for an en­tire sea­son.

In fact, for most of the half-cen­tury since 1968, po­lit­i­cal ges­tures by sports­peo­ple have been rel­a­tively rare. The Black Power move­ment ran out of steam; no eas­ily grasped suc­ces­sor con­cept took its place. The rise of ca­ble tele­vi­sion saw sport flooded with money. Ath­letes were changed as a re­sult. Su­per-rich su­per­stars such as OJ Simp­son and Michael Jor­dan were known for their lack of en­gage­ment with so­cial is­sues. To­day, says Stephen Wagg – pro­fes­sor at the Carnegie School of Sport at Leeds Beck­ett univer­sity and co-edi­tor of Sport, Protest and Glob­al­i­sa­tion – ‘top sports­peo­ple are less likely to iden­tify with the dis­pos­sessed and down­trod­den be­cause they no longer fit that de­scrip­tion them­selves’. Oc­ca­sion­ally, an ath­lete who feels strongly about a cause may use his fame to draw at­ten­tion to it. Think of Rob­bie Fowler’s sup­port for strik­ing Liver­pool dock work­ers in 1997: or, more re­cently, of the at­tempt by Ogn­jen Vuko­je­vić, a coach for Croa­tia at this year’s foot­ball World Cup, to draw at­ten­tion to Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in Ukraine. Such ges­tures are swiftly snuffed out. ‘Elite sport is in­creas­ingly a tele­vi­sion show,’ says Wagg, ‘with tele­vi­sion de­liv­er­ing au­di­ences to ad­ver­tis­ers. That process is jeop­ar­dised if there is a boa­trock­ing protest. Ad­ver­tis­ers don’t want that kind of un­pleas­ant­ness.’ Nor, as a re­sult, do sport­ing em­ploy­ers. (Fowler was fined; Vuko­je­vić was both fined and sacked.)

Some­times, how­ever, there is a coun­ter­force, and that ex­plains what is hap­pen­ing in the US to­day. Pop­u­lar sup­port for #Black­lives­mat­ter can­cels out fear of en­rag­ing the sport­ing es­tab­lish­ment. ‘Ath­letes get their courage from peo­ple protest­ing in the streets,’ says Dave Zirin, sports edi­tor of The Na­tion and co-au­thor (with Car­los) of The John Car­los Story. ‘They know they have an au­di­ence that’s go­ing to sup­port them.’

Ed­wards, who also works as a con­sul­tant to the 49ers, warned his then col­league Colin Kaeper­nick that tak­ing the knee would have neg­a­tive con­se­quences. ‘I told him, “There’s al­ways a price to be paid. You know that the death threats are com­ing in. You know that the NFL is go­ing to seek to re­tal­i­ate against you.” Yet even when these ath­letes know this, they still step up.

‘Colin Kaeper­nick is one of the bright­est and most ar­tic­u­late, com­mit­ted and coura­geous young men that I have ever en­coun­tered, as well as be­ing a world-class ath­lete. I put him right in the same cat­e­gory as Ali, Smith and Car­los.

‘These young men aren’t dis­re­spect­ful of Amer­ica,’ says Ed­wards. ‘What they’re say­ing is: “We, the peo­ple, are bet­ter than this.”’

Ac­cord­ing to Reid, Amer­i­can val­ues are worth pay­ing a price for: specif­i­cally, the ideal of ‘equal­ity for all Amer­i­cans, no mat­ter their race or gen­der’. Martin Luther King, in his most fa­mous speech, spoke of the need for the US to ‘make real the prom­ises of democ­racy’. Kaeper­nick echoed the thought last year. ‘This coun­try stands for free­dom, lib­erty, jus­tice for all,’ he told The New Yorker. ‘And it’s not hap­pen­ing for all right now.’

As the world marks the 50th an­niver­sary, this month, of the crush­ing of the Prague Spring and, in Oc­to­ber, the 50th an­niver­sary of the podium protests that de­fined the Mex­ico Olympics, we will hon­our the ath­letes of West and East who ex­changed glory for op­pro­brium. It seems sadly ironic that, as we do so, the sport­ing es­tab­lish­ment is ex­act­ing a sim­i­lar price from their mod­ern coun­ter­parts: es­pe­cially if, as some fear, the com­ing NFL sea­son brings out the worst in an al­ready po­larised United States.

We can al­ready hear the rum­blings of anger. We can only hope – echo­ing Tom­mie Smith’s prayer – that the next sound we hear will not be some­thing worse.

‘There is al­ways a price to pay. The death threats come in’

2018 For­mer San Fran­cisco 49ers play­ers Colin Kaeper­nick (cen­tre) and Eric Reid (far right) were the first to kneel dur­ing the na­tional an­them prior to NFL matches, as seen here last year; they now find them­selves with­out a team

Muham­mad Ali at his home in Chicago, Fe­bru­ary 1968, the year af­ter his li­cence to box was re­voked

Czech ath­lete Emil Zá­topek protest­ing about the Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion of Cze­choslo­vakia in Prague, Au­gust 1968

Ac­tivists rally in sup­port of NFL player Colin Kaeper­nick in New York, Au­gust 2017

Mi­ami Dol­phins fans in op­po­si­tion to Kaeper­nick’s kneel­ing protests

Top Liver­pool foot­baller Rob­bie Fowler in 1997. Above Croa­t­ian soccer coach Ogn­jen Vuko­je­vic (left) posted a pro-ukraine video on so­cial me­dia last month

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.