The Olympic “Black Power” Salute

This week (Oct. 17) in 1968 at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, two black American sprinters staged a political protest that galvanized the country and produced one of the most memorable photos ever taken at an athletic contest anywhere. While standing on the podium during the ceremony to award medals for the 200-meter dash, gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos both raised a black-gloved fist in the air as a gesture of solidarity to the Black Power movement and — as they later explained — to protest against the institutional racism and poverty that black Americans suffered in the United States.  (The photo can be viewed by Googling either man’s name.)

In response, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stripped both men of their medals and supported the actions of the United States Olympic Committee, which suspended Smith and Carlos from the U.S. Olympic team and sent them home.

The IOC took this action because, as the committee explained at the time, “The basic principle of the Olympic Games is that politics plays no part whatsoever in them.”   When Carlos and Smith “advertised domestic political views,” the committee added, they “violated this universally accepted principle.”

Carlos and Smith would certainly agree with the charge that they had “advertised domestic political views.”  In fact, earlier in the summer they had planned to join an all-black-athlete boycott of the Mexico City games, which a young sociologist named Harry Edwards was trying to organize in the hopes that it would call attention to the lack of progress the Civil Rights movement was making in job discrimination, anti-poverty programs, voting rights and the like.  But the boycott fell through, so Smith and Carlos, who had been friends and teammates since college, decided to take matters into their own fists.

Back home in America replays of the defiant gesture dominated the evening news and the photo was published in newspapers nationwide.  Given that both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been murdered earlier in the year, racial tensions were high in America, and while some applauded the courage that Carlos and Smith had shown, most Americans considered their action a disgrace. Carlos and Smith faced death threats, and for years both men had trouble finding lasting employment.

As an interesting aside, at the Summer Olympic Games in Greece, in 2004, an Iranian judo wrestler refused to wrestle an Israeli wrestler because his country, Iran, does not recognize Israel’s right to exist.  It is difficult to imagine a more blatantly political gesture, yet the IOC did nothing.  Apparently the principle that “politics plays no part whatsoever” at the Olympics depends on who is doing the playing.