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How 2020 Olympic hopefuls feel about representing the U.S.
USA TODAY Sports’ Larry Berger discusses what he is hearing about how 2020 Olympic hopefuls feel about representing the United States.
The 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City showcased one of the most influential moments of protest in sports history.
It was the evening of Oct. 16, 52 years ago Friday, when American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos took the medal stand and raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the national anthem, an action to be ingrained in their legacy forever.
Smith had just won gold and set a world record of 19.83 seconds in the 200-meter dash. Carlos won bronze and to their right on the medal stand was Australian sprinter Peter Norman with silver.
But the iconic images of the lowered heads and raised fists of Carlos and Smith that we see today is much more than just a Black Power salute.
These Olympic games took place at the height of the civil rights movement in America. Black members of the U.S. track team — arguably one of the fastest teams ever assembled — threatened to boycott the Olympic Games to protest the racist treatment of Black people in America. The question of a possible boycott by some athletes put the media in a frenzy leading up to the much-anticipated Olympics.
Although the boycott did not take full shape and the Black athletes that had trained their entire lives for this moment to compete decided to participate in the Games, their protest took form in several other ways.
Context for other symbols on the medal stand that are often overlooked:
As the three athletes took the medal stand, Smith, Carlos and Norman all wore patches on their jackets.
The patches were Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges. OPHR was an organization founded in 1967 by Dr. Harry Edwards comprised of prominent Olympic athletes created to expose the mistreatment of Black athletes in America.
The OPHR also sought to debunk the lie that there was racial equality in America as a result of Black athletes seemingly being accepted into major-league sports.
The OPHR believed that America and media were simply propping up Black athletes like Jackie Robinson and Kenny Washington, who broke barriers in white leagues to show great strides of racial progress in America when there inevitably was very little.
The main goals and demands of the OPHR included restoring Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight boxing title, which had been stripped from him when he publicly opposed the Vietnam War earlier that year, to hire more Black coaches, to remove Avery Brundage as the head of the International Olympic Committee — Brundage was known for racism, sexism and anti-Semitism throughout his tenure — and to exclude South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympic Games in solidarity with Black people against the apartheid happening in Africa.
Although Norman did not join with Carlos and Smith with raised fists, wearing the patch and standing in solidarity with them was enough to later affect his career as well.
Smith later explained publicly other symbolic messages displayed on the stand that day.
The black glove on Smith’s right hand signified the power of Black America. The black glove on Carlos’ left hand signified Black unity. The scarf worn around Smith’s neck was a symbol of Black pride and Blackness in America.
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Carlos and Smith both took the stand shoeless to receive their medals wearing black socks to symbolize poverty in the Black community. Carlos’ unzipped jacket, which was a violation of Olympic etiquette, stood for solidarity with the working class in America.
Carlos also wore beads around his neck to honor victims of lynchings.
In Smith’s autobiography “Silent Gesture” published in 2007, the Olympian stated that the action was a “human rights salute,” not just a Black Power salute.
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This moment caught in the intersection of political activism and the experiences of Black Americans led to Carlos and Smith being kicked off the U.S. Olympic team in Mexico and sent home.
Although their actions led them to be vilified upon their return home, both went on to be considered heroes in American sports history, the focus of countless books and documentaries. Both were even drafted by NFL teams.
The historic actions of Smith and Carlos, coupled with protests happening around sports today, have been a factor in how the International Olympic Committee reviews their stance on protesting for Games to come.
The fight for equality for Black athletes has shown itself beyond the monumental moment of 1968. Prominent athletes today are still fighting not just for the opportunity to prove themselves on the field, but for the right to racial equality and equity off the field.
Contact Analis Bailey at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @analisbailey.