It is an iconic Olympic moment that resonates in our current climate of racial activism. At the summer games in Mexico City in 1968, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner as they stood on the awards podium — what became known as the “Black Power salute.”
Smith had won the gold medal, Carlos the bronze, in the 200-meter race. They could have quietly accepted their medals but instead used their platform — during the first Olympics broadcast by an American television network — to call attention to the plight of Black people worldwide, including in the United States.
“It’s a crucial moment in the narrative of civil rights, and athletes, activism, and race relations in the United States. That picture goes around the world,” said historian Mark Dyreson in this episode of the History As It Happens podcast. Dyreson is the director of research and educational programs at the Penn State Center for the Study of Sports in Society.
Smith’s and Carlos’ protest happened during one of the most agonizing years in U.S. history. By the time the Olympic games were held in October, Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. Police violence had scarred the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. And Americans were only weeks away from electing a new president during the height of the Vietnam War.
If Smith and Carlos, who were kicked off the U.S. team, stand out as the most memorable act of political protest, the 1968 Olympics were part of a long tradition of Black activism and sports. Politics and sports have always mixed, Dyreson said.
The 2021 games in Tokyo this month probably will be no different, despite the International Olympic Committee’s vow to punish athletes who demonstrate on podiums or during events, as The Washington Times’ Andy Kostka has reported.
“The people that invented modern sport, who were from Great Britain and the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, considered sport essentially a political tool,” Dyreson said.
The United States and several European nations considered boycotting the 1936 Olympics in Berlin to protest Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Some major Black athletes, including Lew Alcindor (who would change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), did boycott the 1968 games, whereas the Olympic Project for Human Rights (in which Smith and Carlos participated) saw the Mexico City Olympics “as an opportunity to agitate for better treatment of Black athletes.”
Among the group’s list of demands was the reinstatement of Mohammad Ali’s heavyweight title. Ali was stripped of his belt and banned from boxing for refusing to be drafted into the U.S. armed forces.
For more of Mr. Dyreson’s historical perspective on Black activism and sports, as well as a conversation with The Washington Times’ Mr. Kostka about what to expect in Tokyo, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.