It is the most famous image of protest in Olympic history: two black American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, standing on the medals podium giving the Black Power salute beneath the US national flag. Both men, competitors in the men’s 200 metres final, had run all-out to win, aiming to make it to the medals podium to deliver a message. ‘The race is over,’ John Carlos was thinking as they walked from track to podium. ‘Time for the main event. Let’s get it on!’(p.119).
When Smith and Carlos arrived in Mexico City for the Olympic Games in October 1968, they had nothing definite planned. Leading members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), they had campaigned for a boycott of the Games by all black athletes. But the boycott had failed, and they had nothing else in mind.
OPHR had three main demands. One was the restoration of Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight boxing title. This had been taken away in response to Ali’s outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War. He had crystallised the issue for millions of black Americans when he said, ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me “nigger”.’
Ali was clear that the main enemy was at home: ‘No, I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder, kill, and burn other people to simply continue the domination of white slave-masters over dark people the world over. This is the day and age when such evil injustice must come to an end.’
The second OPHR demand was for the sacking of Avery Brundage as head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Brundage, who held the supreme IOC office from 1952 to 1972, was a racist, a rabid anti-communist, and an authoritarian bully. He had first emerged to prominence in 1936, when he had championed the Berlin Games against attempts to mount a boycott. Brundage had been an open admirer of Hitler at the time, seeing Nazism as a barrier to Communism.
After the Smith/Carlos protest, Brundage would announce that the two black athletes had ‘violated one of the basic principles of the Olympic Games: that politics play no part whatsoever in them’ (p.xvi). The ‘no politics in sport’ refrain was a recurring Brundage theme, as it has been of countless other right-wing sports officials and commentators. What they mean is absolutely clear from their hypocritical behaviour: their politics, the taken-for-granted politics of nationalism, corporate sponsorship, and corrupt backroom deals, is okay; but our politics, the politics of protest against injustice, is not.
The third OPHR demand that year was for the exclusion of Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) and South Africa. Both were ruled by white-minority regimes. Both denied votes to their black-majority populations. Both were systems of racial capitalism in which black workers and peasants were subjected to exceptional levels of exploitation, poverty, and police terror. Brundage wanted Rhodesia and South Africa in the Games. OPHR wanted them out.
In the event, the boycott collapsed. This was partly because the Olympic ban on the racist regimes was reinstated, but it was also because it proved too much to ask black athletes from poor backgrounds to give up their chance of sporting glory. Smith and Carlos went to Mexico City with heavy hearts.
Yet the impact of the protest actually staged in Mexico City could hardly have been greater. Smith and Carlos stood on the medals stand shoeless to symbolise black poverty, with beads round their necks to protest racist lynchings, with the OPHR badge sewn on their tracksuit tops, and wearing the black gloves of the Black Power movement. As the Stars and Stripes ran up the flagpole and the US national anthem began to play, Smith and Carlos raised their right arms in a gesture of solidarity with the victims of racism, violence, and injustice at home and across the world.
Smith had won the gold, Carlos the bronze, and a white New Zealander, Peter Norman, the silver. Norman, in an extraordinary act of anti-racist solidarity, also wore an OPHR badge on his tracksuit. He, like his black colleagues, would pay a terrible price back home for his stand in Mexico City.
At first, there was silence in the stadium, and then a cacophony of anger and abuse as people booed, shouted insults, and screamed out the national anthem. The event triggered all the latent racism of the white American sports fans in the crowd.
The US press called it ‘an embarrassment visited upon the country’, an ‘act contemptuous of the United States’, and a ‘Nazi-like salute’. The protesters and their families were at first engulfed by a blizzard of hostile media attention, and then, as the storm died down after their return to the US, they found themselves shunned and marginalised. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Carlos did a series of menial jobs, working as a security guard, a caretaker, and a salesman, in an effort to support his family. Even so, his marriage broke up under the pressure, and his former wife later took her own life.
Only recently have the courage and nobility of the protest become widely recognised. Yet even in 1968, beneath the gaze of the mainstream media, hundreds of millions across the world who saw the images of the protest identified with it. There was immediate solidarity from many team-mates, from black sportsmen back home, and from the whole radicalised generation of 1968. But careers and lives were wrecked.
This book is one of the most moving political testimonies I have ever read. Building to the dramatic climax of the protest itself, it is as close as political biography gets to something like a pulp thriller in pace and excitement. Here is a black kid growing up in Harlem, learning to hustle, to survive on the streets, to outrun the cops, but also growing in consciousness and gaining a burning sense of injustice. Carlos was labelled a ‘dunce’ at school because he was dyslexic, but his speed on the streets soon marked him out as special. He says that from the age of twelve he had the Olympics in his sights, but swimming, his preferred sport, was an impossible ambition – poor black kids from Harlem had no pool to train in – whereas ‘running is what you did to get away from bullies or the police’ (p.11).
His role models were Errol Flynn (playing Robin Hood in film), Malcolm X (whom he trailed on the streets and plied with questions), and Martin Luther King (whom he met shortly before his assassination). The experience of racism fused with the example of the black struggle to turn John Carlos from ghetto hustler into political activist. ‘It was like he was blowing out my eardrums without raising his voice,’ Carlos says of hearing Malcolm X speak at a local mosque. ‘He didn’t perform any kind of theatrics with either his pitch or his tone. There was no showmanship in the man. His power, and the response of the audience, grew out of the fact that he was articulating ideas we were thinking about all the time but didn’t really have the language or vocabulary to express. For me, it was like he grabbed onto my frustrations and turned them into logic’ (pp.28-9).
Carlos led spontaneous local protests. He told the principal of his high school that ‘you have got 48 hours’ to deal with the filthy food being served in the canteen. When the time expired, a canteen boycott began, inspired by the Civil Rights struggles in the South. It lasted two weeks. Carlos threatened to escalate by going to the press. The principal capitulated and the food was improved. ‘I felt like I had a new slogan: “You’ve got 48 hours.” I really liked the idea of putting that sentiment to someone in power and making it clear to them that I wasn’t talking just to hear myself speak’ (p.37).
Racism, poverty, protest, and athletics: these things became inseparably interwoven in the fabric of John Carlos’s life. Victory on the track became a means to an end: a platform of athletic achievement from which to broadcast an anti-racist message. John Carlos’ Mexico City protest was the hinge on which his life turned. Nothing was ever the same again. Much was a lot worse. Yet he remains an untamed radical, an unapologetic rebel against injustice and oppression. ‘I still feel the old impulses, the old compulsions, to stand up and be heard, no matter the cost, no matter the price. I still have fire inside me that I just don’t talk about’ (p.172).
John Carlos is an inspiration, and this little book is a superb account of his life of sport and struggle.
Neil Faulkner will be speaking on Olympic History- Ancient and Modern at Firebox, 8 August at 7pm, 106-8 Cromer Street, London, WC1H 8BZ
In the parks, halls and public spaces around Kings Cross
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