By Idy Uyoe
Peter Norman, Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium in Mexico City (Wikimedia Commons)
It is easily the most significant medal ceremony in Olympic history. On the evening of October 16, 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, victorious African-American sprinters who won gold and bronze respectively, raised opposite fists in the air in a “Black Pride” Salute, on the medal stand at the Olympic Games in Mexico City. Fifty years forward, one of the most iconic photographs in history continues to ignite debate about the use of sport as a powerful platform for expression on issues impacting broader society. That image from the podium has been significantly rehabilitated half a century later, with Smith and Carlos viewed now as pioneers of courage and conviction versus pariahs and the punished, as they were in the years following the protest.
I had a chance to speak with John Carlos, the bronze medalist who stood behind Smith on the podium 50 years ago, and I came away convinced this was a man with purpose, a man who accepted the outcomes associated with doing what he believed to be right. Excerpts from our conversation follows:
On Why He Believes Protesting at the Mexico City Olympic Games Was His Destiny
Carlos told me about a vision he had when he was five years old. He describes sitting in a large field in Mexico, and the crowd was cheering and clapping for him. But when he raised his left hand to wave back to the crowd, Carlos says, “the joy and happiness turned to sadness and anger.” He started hearing boos and jeers from the same people who had favorably acknowledged him moments earlier. Carlos recalled how he thought it was strange to wave to the crowd with his left hand in the dream, since he is actually right handed. Fifteen years later, Carlos would dress his left hand in a black glove and swing upwards, slicing a piece of history into the air in a crowded stadium in Mexico City.
On the Spontaneity of the Moment
John Carlos was the bronze medalist in 200m in Mexico City (Wikimedia Commons)
Carlos said winning a medal wasn’t his main priority at those Olympic Games, but rather, it was getting on the victory stand for the protest. To Carlos, the bronze medal was simply a byproduct of making the podium. He expressed disappointment, however, that the Olympic boycott planned by African-American athletes to call attention to racial injustices in the United States and elsewhere, never materialized. According to Carlos, his (and Smith’s) subsequent expulsion from the Olympic Games was immaterial; making his point is what mattered. Says Carlos, “We went there, we ran, and we won. We went there to make a statement and we did that. What was relevant was what you saw.”
On the Reaction that Followed the Protest
Carlos describes the immediate reaction to the protest as decidedly mixed. Says Carlos, “Some people rejoiced, others felt pain. It was complicated.” He went on the say the media created the impression the men were intimidating, and never fully understood the purpose of the protest. From context, I got the impression those opinions haven’t moved much in half a century.
On the role of the Australian Peter Norman, the Third Man on the Podium in Mexico City
Peter Norman, right, during Sydney 2000 torch relay. He died in 2006. (ATR)
Carlos: “Peter Norman was a fine individual.” Norman did not visibly protest on the podium, but he did wear an Olympic Project for Human Rights* pin in support of Smith and Carlos, which carried consequences. Though Norman wasn’t expelled from the games like Smith and Carlos, his own punishment was swift and decisive. The Australian Olympic Committee suspended Norman for two years for his role in the protest. According to Carlos, however, “a lot of what was said about the role he [Norman] had in the protest was not true. I’ll just leave it at that.” In 2012, the Australian parliament issued a posthumous apology to Norman, who died in 2006, for the way he and his family were treated upon returning to Australia. The Parliamentary motion read in part, “[This] acknowledges the bravery of Peter Norman in donning an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the podium, in solidarity with African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave the ‘black power’ salute.”
What has now become a footnote to Norman in this story, was his record-breaking performance in that 200-meter race, where he out leaned Carlos at the tape for the silver. Norman’s time of 20.06 seconds still stands as a national record in Australia, 50 years later.
On Athletes Protest of Today
I asked Carlos what he thought in general about current athletes protesting to bring attention to important social issues impacting various segments of society. Replies Carlos, “Sports has grown tremendously since I competed. Pro athletes earn their money, but they also have a right to speak out. There is a more intellectual discussion now … more fineness to the conversation. We have to look at what we are doing for ourselves and our communities. Something is broke [sic], and we need to fix it. The system is infected. We have to do something.”
On How History Will Remember the Protest
I ended by asking Carlos how he views the protest now, and its place in history. “Slavery is a part of history. We’re part of a new history handed down now. I wasn’t around during slavery. Think about where we are in society.” Carlos goes on to give an example of the need for minority self-empowerment, saying, “In records, we make the music, but they make the profits.” Carlos believes the protest is still as vibrant today as it was 50 years ago, gaining more resonance with the passage of time. Reflectively he adds, “That event was a beacon for society. This is all a natural energy that can come together. This event was destined to happen.”
And of course it did.
*Smith and Carlos were a part of a project known as The Olympic Project for Human Rights, OPHR. Their demands included: Hiring of more African-American coaches in the US collegiate sport system; banning Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia (under white minority rule) from the Olympics; the removal of International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage and the restoration of Muhammad Ali as the legitimate heavyweight champion of the world, after his title had been taken away as a result of his refusal to enter the Vietnam war.
Idy Uyoe (www.idysports.com) is an Olympic scholar, commentator and sports marketing professional. He is an active member of the International Society of Olympic Historians. Follow him on Twitter @idysports.
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