Unity and pride

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They walked onto the podium wearing black socks and no shoes, to symbolise black poverty, and the badges of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. As the Star Spangled Banner began to play in honour of Smith’s victory, the pair turned to face the Stars and Stripes being hoisted to their right. Each then closed his eyes, bowed his head and raised a single, black gloved hand into air for the duration of the anthem. Neither reacted to the increasingly loud booing of the 70,000 strong crowd at the Estadio Olimpico Universitario. The pair left the arena in silence, stopping only to once more raise their gloved hands just before exiting. It was a symbolic gesture of genius. During the Olympic victory ceremony, signifying the pinnacle of fair play and equal, honest competition, as the two best known symbols of the United States were simultaneously unfurled, the protest of two men representing the US delivered an awesomely powerful statement that in the US fair play and equal, honest competition were not at work to an audience of 400 million people around the world. Smith’s performances throughout the event had been outstanding. He broke the Olympic record in his first heat, and, after Peter Norman had pushed down the record further, posted another quickest ever time during the third round. In the final, he demolished both the rest of the field and the world record. Despite raising his arms in triumph metres from the finish, he crossed in 19.83 seconds, becoming the first man under 20 seconds and posting a world record that would hold for more than a decade. Carlos and Norman crossed in 20.0, completing the fastest 200m race in Olympic history. The bravery of Smith and Carlos’ protest is hard to fully appreciate today, without an awareness of the hostility of the sports establishment (and much of US society in general) to their cause. Racial tension in sport was fierce in 1968: that year Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing the draft and the Olympic Project for Human Rights (of which Smith, Carlos and other prominent Olympians were members) had seriously considered a black boycott of the games. In view of this, US track coaches Payton Jordan and Stan Wright repeatedly issued statements declaring that there would be “no trouble whatsoever”. Smith and Carlos’ action saw them suspended from the US team and expelled from the Olympic village on the charge of bringing politics into sport. Once home, they faced widespread criticism from sections of the media (the Los Angeles Times described their action as a “Nazi-like salute”) and even death threats. We can be thankful that today, Smith and Carlos are commended, not ostracised for their actions. In 1998, the pair were honoured to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of their protest. Other accolades have poured in: Smith was inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1978, Carlos in 2003; Smith is now a university professor, while Carlos received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater. But their actions should serve as a reminder that sporting events are not isolated from the world around them. This remains as relevant today as it was in 1968, with cricket tours to Zimbabwe and the Beijing Olympics. One can only hope that Smith and Carlos’ actions will inspire some of their successors to attempt to make the same impact they had.Thirty seven years ago last Sunday Tommie Smith and John Carlos created one of the proudest moments in the history of sport. Their spectacular silent protest during the medal ceremony for the 200m sprint at the Mexico Olympics became the most recognisable symbol of the Civil Rights movement in the US. Smith and Carlos had gained the attention of the world with athletic performances of true champions, and they used the platform they had won to make the most positive impact they could on their society, despite the greatest opposition the world’s sporting administration could muster. So significant was the event that in her recent book ‘Not the Triumph but the Struggle’ Amy Bass argued it was a defining moment not only in the Civil Rights movement but in the whole history of the African-American athlete. Smith and Carlos’ protest was exquisitely carried out.ARCHIVE: 2nd week MT 2005

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