Except for the coronavirus pandemic that has turned the world of sports upside down, we’d be in the middle of the Tokyo Olympics right about now with all of the accompanying glamour and splendor that the modern Games have become.
Half a century ago, the Mexico City Olympics were held in a vastly different setting, against a landscape of discord following the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and an unpopular war in Southeast Asia that triggered student demonstrations at college campuses around the country. There had been riots in the streets of the host city and the Games seemed to be sitting on a tinderbox of trouble when the competition got underway.
The common denominator between then and now was racial discord. It manifests itself today in the Black Lives Matter movement and protests around the country. In 1968, it came in a silent demonstration by American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
As they stood on the medals platform after the 200-meter race, Smith with the gold and Carlos the bronze, they wore no shoes and had their sweat pants rolled up to reveal long black socks. They each bent their head and raised a gloved fist in the air as the Star Spangled Banner played in the stadium.
The Black Power statement outraged Olympic officials, who preferred to keep politics far removed from the Games. There had been talk of a boycott that never materialized but Smith and Carlos had demonstrated their defiance for the status quo. The two Americans were immediately reprimanded and then suspended by the United States Olympic Committee and ordered out of the Olympic Village. That was academic. Their competitions were complete. They were leaving anyway but they left a mark on those Games.
Both Smith and Carlos went on to successful post-Olympic careers but their protest resonates to this day, 52 years later.
“All I did was stand there with a fist in the air,’’ Smith, who is now 76, told NBC last month. “It was a cry for freedom. “And now people are beginning to throw a right fist up and throw it up for different reasons. But they have the freedom to do it.’’
“What we stood for in 1968, here we are in 2020 and it’s come full circle to what we said,’’ Carlos, 75, added. “What you’ve seen not only here in the United States, but worldwide, is a rainbow coalition and that is humanity, live and in living color.’’
Half a century later, the debate continues with players in football and basketball taking a knee to protest social injustice. You rarely hear their names but that all started with two American runners, brave enough to make a statement, brave enough to stand up for what they believed, brave enough to give athletes a voice they never had before.
For that, Tommie Smith and John Carlos and the silent Olympic statement they made at a complicated time in American history should forever be celebrated.