The Mexico Olympics of 1968 saw African-American protests reach a world-wide audience when two black athletes used a medal ceremony for the 200 meters to protest about the lack of real civil rights in America.
One of the greatest sprinters in the world in 1968 was Tommy Smith. By the end of his athletics career, Smith had equaled or broken thirteen world records. Close behind him in the rankings was John Carlos. Both were team mates at San Jose State College. In the build up to the games, all African-American athletes were urged to boycott the games by the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). A member of OPHR was Harry Edwards who was a friend of both sprinters and had influenced Smith and Carlos even before the Mexico games. Though a boycott never materialised, both Smith and Carlos agreed on a protest at the medal ceremony for the 200 meters which both were expected to be at.
|“It (a protest) was in my head the whole year. We first tried to have a boycott (of the games) but not everyone was down with that plan. A lot of athletes thought that winning medals would supercede or protect them from racism. But even if you won the medal, it ain’t going to save your momma. It ain’t going to save your sister or children. It might give you fifteen minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life? I’m not saying that they didn’t have the right to follow their dreams, but to me the medal was nothing but the carrot on a stick.”John Carlos
In the 200 meters final, Smith won the gold medal and Carlos took the bronze medal. Smith’s time of 19.8 seconds equaled the world record. As both men climbed the medals podium, it became clear that they were wearing one black glove; Smith on his right hand, Carlos on his left. Smith later stated that his right handed demonstration was meant to represent Black Power in America. The left hand demo of Carlos was meant to represent unity in Black America. The archway that their raised arms created was meant to represent black power and unity in America. The black socks that both wore (and no shoes) represented black poverty in America. Both men also wore beads at the ceremony.
|“We wanted the world to know that in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, South Central Los Angeles, Chicago, that people were still walking back and forth in poverty without even the necessary clothes to live.The beads were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage. We were trying to wake the country up and wake the world up to.”
Their gesture was seen as a Black Power salute – and was watched by tens of millions of people world-wide. This resulted in both men being expelled from the Olympic village and suspended by the American Olympic Committee and being ordered to leave Mexico City. Their ‘official’ crime had been to bring in political issues to an apolitical event.
|“The basic principle of the Olympic Games is that politics plays no part whatsoever in them. US athletes violated this universally accepted principle….to advertise domestic political views.”IOC statement after the protest
Ironically – and missed by many at the time – the man who won the silver medal (Peter Norman of Australia) wore the badge of the OPHR on his tracksuit .
When the two men returned to America, they were greeted as heroes by the African-American community and as unpatriotic troublemakers by others. In fact, both men suffered threats against their lives. However, the stance they took was publicised throughout the world. Polls have indicated that their demonstration was the 6th most memorable event of the C20th – an astonishing achievement for athletes of whatever description. In 1998 both men were honoured for the stance they had taken in 1998.
Thirty years after the event, Steve Holman, an Olympic athlete at the 1992 Games and America’s fastest miler of the 1990-95 era, wrote a tribute to what both men had done in 1968 and what it meant to him. It is worth reading and can be found on: