Could it be more famous?
Mexico City, the 1968 Olympics, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos are standing atop the medal stand with their gold and bronze medals, respectively, for the 200-meter race, and, as Australian Peter Norman stands by, they raise their fists in the black power salute.
Or did they? As some of us at the HP recall, there was confusion sown in the 70s and 80s about whether Smith and Carlos were giving the black power salute or just raising their fists in some gesture of support for humanity in general. The idea that American Olympians would sully the Olympics with politics–let alone black American Olympians sullying the Olympics with racial politics–was considered out of the question.
In 1968, however, there was no nonsense about it. Smith and Carlos never denied that the gesture was made in solidarity with black Americans. The Smithsonian Magazine has a full story about the moment, its genesis, and its fallout, in which Smith says
“I felt alone and free,” says Smith, now 72. “There was nothing there to protect me but God, nothing to distract my feeling of equality. … I was just alone in a position that millions were watching and I hope the millions realized that it was a pride in how I felt about a country that did not represent me. I was proud of the country, but even the greatest things in the world need attention when they’re not as strong as they could be. It was a cry for freedom. …My life was on the line for the belief in equality during the human rights era of Dr. King and what he stood for.”
Smith had help planning the moment of protest and solidarity in the name of black pride and power from founders of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), made up of non-professional black athletes who wanted to use the international platform to advance human rights. Smith included some military-step movements that were the catalyst for boos from the crowd, which had kept silent, perhaps while evaluating just what they were seeing. Smith responded by raising his fist again as he left the field.
The outcry from the U.S. was overwhelming. Smith and Carlos were suspended from the U.S. team, ignored by the press when they returned home, despite their medals, and of course received death threats. The main charges against them were that 1) they had misrepresented the United States as a land where black people suffered oppression; and 2) they had brought ugly politics into the beautiful Oz land that was the peaceful Olympics. When the next Olympics, in Munich in 1972, were torn limb from limb by the abduction and murder of the Israeli team by Palestinian terrorists, there were those who blamed Smith and Carlos for opening the door to politics and murder at the Olympic games.
The first charge was, or course, untrue: it was no misrepresentation of the U.S. to say that it protected discrimination in word and deed, systemic and personal. The second charge is worth some thought. We do appreciate the Olympics for their focus on sports alone, and the fact that they usually bring nations in conflict together in one place. Of course, the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany were an exception, and the U.S., China, and Soviet Union and the European nations it occupied have all boycotted the Olympics for political reasons since 1980. And fewer nations are opting to run the financial and security risks of hosting the games in an age of near-constant terrorism. At the close of each Games, we all breathe a collective sigh of relief if the only problem was lack of snow at a Winter Games due to climate change.
But it’s becoming more obvious as the 21st century progresses that we can’t ask athletes to step away from politics and still require them to positively promote the owners, teams, leagues, cities, and nations that hire them. If we ask athletes to represent, we have to provide them with owners, teams, leagues, cities, and nations that are worthy of representation.
Representing your country in the Olympics is very meaningful, but only if your country supports and protects you. If your country oppresses you, then demands that you publicly honor it at sporting events and competitions, then come back home to be further oppressed, that’s so dishonest that it’s bound to impact the athlete’s sense of integrity and even their performance. The athlete must begin to compete either in their own name, or in the name of those who do support and protect them.
We first saw the latter happen in the NFL, when quarterback Colin Kaepernick began to kneel during the national anthem to protest racism. He was quickly drummed out of the league, and is still staunchly forgotten by the NFL even as it sends out messages of support for Black Lives Matter. Since the much-needed rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, racial protest in the WNBA, followed by the NBA, MLS, MLB, and the NHL has become common. For the first time in its history, players in the NBA refused to play in a game in August 2020 to protest the murder of yet another black American by the police.
In the U.S., we are bound by a pledge to offer and uphold liberty and justice for all. When we do not honor that pledge, our athletes need to call that out, in public, in front of the world. As we say in our post Kneeling during the national anthem is patriotic,
The national anthem is sung at sports events while enormous flags are unfurled across the stadium or from the roof of the court. The flag is the symbol of the indivisible nation we are committing ourselves to support. This is a moment of good faith: the flag stands in for our country, and we honor it by promising to uphold its founding principles.
So the anthem is an entirely appropriate time and place to protest any violation of those founding principles of liberty and justice for all. In fact, it is the height of patriotism to say, “I’m not going to pay lip service to the flag by saying I give my allegiance to the principle of liberty and justice for all but then ignoring flagrant violations of that principle. I’m not going to pretend that what the flag stands for is not being systematically violated. I will not support a good faith gesture being made in bad faith.”
We disrespect the flag when we thoughtlessly salute it, when we salute it while ignoring the violations of our national principles, when we act like saluting the flag is patriotism. Singing the national anthem and saluting the flag are not in themselves patriotic acts. They can be, if they are performed with the serious intention of working to uphold the principles the flag and anthem stand for. But if we’re just mouthing words and waiting for the game to start, they are not patriotic. If we sing the words and put our hands over our hearts while doing nothing to fight for our country, that is not patriotic.
If they didn’t love the United States, these athletes wouldn’t bother to protest. If they didn’t want to feel proud of their country for living by its pledge to uphold justice, they wouldn’t care. In other words, as Smith states above, American athletes are “I hope the millions realized that it was a pride in how I felt about a country that did not represent me. I was proud of the country, but even the greatest things in the world need attention when they’re not as strong as they could be.”
Political protest shouldn’t have to be a part of sports. But for as long as patriotism is, and we sing our national anthem and honor our American flag at sporting events, from little league to the Olympics, we have a duty to protest any attempt to thwart the pledge we make to liberty and justice for all. Tommie Smith and John Carlos knew that back in 1968. Maybe by 2068 we will all acknowledge it.