Iconic Olympic Moments: The Black Power Salute

A DimondSenior Analyst IJuly 24, 2008

It is one of the most iconic moments in the history of sport.

It symbolizes not only the struggle for sporting supremacy, but also the fight for civil liberties. It is arguably the seminal moment in the history of the Olympics.

The Black Power Salute, 16 October 1968.

The two athletes responsible for the gesture, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, could have never imagined the impact their actions would have.

In modern times, the image of both men standing on the podium, with arms aloft in the shape of a fist, has come to represent all that is right about the modern Olympic movement.

It is ironic, therefore, that at the time of their protest it was considered the ultimate act of defiance by Olympic chiefs. But nothing was going to stop the two black athletes.

For one thing, the protest was far from a spontaneous move—it was borne out of years of struggle. The struggle had begun at the San Jose State College, where both men studied.

There, as key members of the infamous "Speed City" team, they dominated the domestic athletic scene in their preferred event, the 200m. Other black teammates were equally successful in their own disciplines.

In the midst of the American Civil Rights Movement, members of the team were all well aware of the discrimination they faced. Their sports scholarships, whilst giving them the chance to study, did not permit them the same class of education that other, white, students received.

Black athletes had to get white friends to secure them a lease on an apartment.

Additionally, while athletics clubs across the country were more than happy to invite black athletes to compete in race meetings that attracted paying crowds, they made it clear that the athletes were less than welcome to use the training facilities.

Such exploitation was symptomatic of the era.

Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, which only heightened the tension that existed throughout the nation. As a result, his appeals for peaceful protest began to fall apart. The Black Panthers, a more violent civil rights group, began to gain wider precedence.

At San Jose, the athletes initially distanced themselves from the delicate political situation. However, quickly politicized by their teacher Harry Edwards (another student at the university), the runners increasingly realized they were in a privileged position to make a public stand.

As the Mexico City Olympics loomed, it became increasingly evident that some form of protest would be made. Initially, such a protest looked likely to be a boycott, as many athletes did not want to race without the same rights their white competitors had.

“All we ask for, is an equal chance to be a human being”, Smith told the media after a winning performance in the run up to the Olympics.

Any talk of a boycott, however, was effectively crushed from within. Too many of the older athletes—who feared 1968 would be their last chance to pursue gold—were unwilling to miss the Games for a walkout to be viable.

The focus then, switched to a protest that could be made at the Olympics themselves. Edwards believed this could make an even bigger impact.

However, the problem with this plan was the opposition it would face from the Olympic committee itself.

Avery Brundage, chairman of the committee, was adamant that political protest had no place in sport, or at the Games. But, with strong links to Hitler and Nazi Germany, the real motives behind Brundage’s stance were questionable.

To rub salt into the San Jose team’s wounds, Brundage even sent Jesse Owens to attempt to persuade the team not to make any embarrassing moves. Owens, as an athlete who had triumphed in the face of adversity at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, was assumed to be a hero to his fellow black athletes.

Such an assumption was a mistake. Evans and his followers, while respectful of Owens' achievements, saw him for the IOC puppet he had become and chased him out of the discussions.

As another black man who had been suffered discrimination, the young athletes expected more support from Owens. Edwards et al. hardened their resolve.

The US Olympic trials were the only obstacle preventing competition at the Olympics. Rumors abounded that the black athletes would be prevented from even running in the trials. Fortunately, such fears proved unfounded and Smith and Carlos booked their flight to Mexico.

At the Olympics, crackdowns on dissenters were promised. Tommie Smith, as 200m world record holder, was expected to be the first black athlete to take a medal. The pressure from his peers was immense. But, even he did not know the protest he was about to make.

Indeed, after pulling up with a hamstring injury at the end of his semi final (which was the same day as the final), Smith was not even sure if he could compete.

Nevertheless, with little idea whether his injury would debilitate him, Smith made the starting grid.

What followed was the most important 19.83 seconds of his life.

Driving for the finish line, not just in the pursuit of a gold medal, but also in the struggle to make a political statement, the world record Smith set would stand for 11 years.

Crossing the line, ignoring his time, all Smith felt was relief.

"It is over. I have done what I was here to do," Tommie recalled thinking, when questioned for a BBC documentary.

His friend and training partner, John Carlos, crossed the line in third place behind the Australian Peter Norman.

On the rostrum, Norman would wear a human rights badge as a symbol of his support for his opponents' beliefs. But, as the medals were presented, it was Smith and Carlos' moment to make their silent gesture.

As the national anthem began playing, each man raised one gloved hand, and shaped it into a fist. Smith raised his right, Carlos his left. Together, the raised fists represented the unity their movement had.

Neither man wore shoes, just black socks representing the poverty the black community faced. It also demonstrated the long walk to equality they were prepared to make.

Smith wore a black scarf, to symbolize the pride and humility he and his race had.

Accompanying the medal around his neck, Carlos wore beads:

"They 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."

Against Olympic protocol, both men unzipped their tracksuit tops—a tribute to the struggle of the blue-collar worker everywhere.

Both men bowed their heads as the Star Spangled Banner played. Boos echoed throughout the stadium when the music stopped and the athletes departed. Smith was not surprised.

"If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight."

Banned from competing further at the Games, both men went back to America. At home, the reaction was little better. Time Magazine, one of America’s most respected journals, ran an issue showing the five-ring Olympic logo with the words, "Angrier, Nastier, Uglier" replacing the traditional Olympic motto "Faster, Higher, Stronger".

Both men were ostracized from the sporting and political community. Forced to look abroad to pay the bills, Smith, at one point, found himself coaching at an English sports club.

Even Peter Norman, who simply chose to support the protest, was reprimanded by his domestic authorities. It would start a vicious circle that would ultimately end in the Australian’s death.

Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral.

Eventually, however, the brave stance of both men would come to be accepted as one of the most poignant moments in history. Lauded as heroes, San Jose State College officially unveiled a statue commemorating the salute in 2005.

Forty years later, in 2008, the world awaits another Olympic protest. With China hosting the Games in Beijing, much has been made of the issue by athletes unhappy with the treatment of Tibet. Boycotts and protests have been discussed.

Such a course of action would be foolish.

While the treatment of Tibet is unsavory, the whole topic is not as clear-cut as the West would like to think. In any case, is the West in any position to criticize the domestic actions of another state? Would we like it if China started criticizing our domestic policies?

The real reason, however, is that such a protest would be extremely hollow. The strength and poignancy of The Black Power Salute came from the fact that both men had directly suffered from the inequalities they were opposing—they knew the pressures surrounding them and defiantly stood their ground.

Unzipping a tracksuit to reveal a "Free Tibet" T-shirt would hardly have the same affect. Indeed, it would do a disservice to the lifetime of oppression that motivated Smith and Carlos’ protest.

Using the Olympics to publicize political issues is a risky game, especially if the Games are being held in the country you are protesting against. Only in the most significant of times should such measures be taken.

The Black Power Salute exemplifies this. Two men, who had dedicated their life to sport, put the political beliefs of themselves and millions of others above their future career.

Can any of the "Free Tibet" athletes say they are prepared to do the same?

Not many people, let alone athletes, can. Such scenarios occur barely every 400 years, let alone every 40.

Smith, Carlos, and Edwards will be rightly remembered as heroes. Their actions helped change society for the better.

That is what the Olympic dream is all about.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.