Today, iconic Olympic moments seem commonplace. Everyone has seen the grand slogans and gestures from gold winning Olympic athletes, aimed at cementing their place in history. From Muhammad Ali’s famous declaration of ‘I am the greatest’ to Usain Bolt’s often imitated pointing signal, some of these iconic moments are certainly more meaningful than others. The religious definition of the word Iconic, defines it as an image that contains a power beyond itself. One icon no one can forget therefore, is the famous image of black Athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, stood on the award podium with raised fists. However, the athletes did not do this just so they could be remembered or so they could get a spot on the evening news. Rather, their gesture was the result of several years of anti-racist organising. Indeed, given the oppression of indigenous populations and the clear dominance of corporate money at today’s Olympics, be they in Brazil or London, many athletes and sports goers would do well to remember the history of activism in sport. Despite this, even the image of Carlos and Smith has been Co-opted by the establishment, in order to be used as a symbol to promote Competition and consumerism. As such, if we are to rescue this image from the jaws of corporate ‘iconography’, it is important that we recognise its true meaning.
From Protest to Podium
In his book, the John Carlos story, Carlos explains how, in early 1968 he joined a handful of other elite African American athletes in his newly formed Olympic project for Human Rights (OPHR). The aim of the project was to launch a boycott of the 1968 Mexico Olympics, by African Americans, in order to bring the issue of the continuing oppression of Black Americans, to the forefront. Like all good movements the OPHR had demands. These were the hiring of black coaches (a crucial issue for Black Americans whose daily lives were managed by old white coaches, with disgusting racist assumptions), the restoration to Muhammad Ali of the heavyweight title which had been stripped from him because of his refusal to take part in the Vietnam war, the exclusion of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympic movement, and the removal of Avery Brundage – a long time white supremacist who helped Hitler secure the 1936 Olympics – as head of the International Olympic committee.
In spite of their brave efforts, the OPHR activists were unable to persuade many of their fellow competitors to sign up for the boycott; for most of them the games represented a once in a lifetime opportunity. In the end, Carlos and Smith decided that they themselves would take part. Luckily however, as a result of that decision, the OPHR activists found themselves in the position to stage a protest at the Olympics. In the 200 metre final, Smith won the Gold in Record time, with the Australian Peter Norman in second, just ahead of Carlos. This gave Smith and Carlos the opportunity to stage their protest before a global audience. As the US National anthem played and the flag fluttered overhead, the two African American athletes raised clenched fists and bowed their heads, while peter Norman supportively wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge. The accompanying symbolism included black gloves for black unity and strength, bead necklaces to remind people of the lynch mobs, no shoes and black socks as a symbol for African American poverty. While we barely notice these symbols today, despite the image of the protest being an iconographic one, their message was unmistakable. Here were African Americans who refused to let their success bolster America’s image, to imply that black people in America enjoyed the same freedoms of everyone else. They realized that this image was a sham, a cover up, and at the same time they showed solidarity against it.
The Context of 1968
On the eve of the 1968 Olympics, a wave of protest had rolled through America and Europe and into Mexico City. It was then that the military fired on protesters killing hundreds of students. In making their stand, Smith and Carlos were able to blur the lines between sport and politics, making people realise, as Muhammad Ali had done before them, that the two are explicitly linked. They were only able to do this however, because of the swelling current of Global activism. They knew that millions would stand in solidarity with them.
Many historians today like to lament that the 1960s developed into a wave of violent black activism, and point to the early 60s as a time when the civil rights movement and protest in general, abided by rules of innocence and nonviolence. The problem with these sorts of mainstream narratives however, is that they fail to recognise that the shift to black power politics occurred because of the frustrations and failures of the early phase of the civil rights movement, out of which arose a need for a deeper, more systemic analysis of racism and how it is connected to American society, as well as more effective forms of action. Mainstream narratives also neglect the achievement of the black power movement in allowing black performers, such as Smith and Carlos, to be self-reliant and contribute to culture. The protest at the 1968 Olympics perfectly demonstrates this. It was an example of a black nationalism that saw problems of racism and discrimination, as explicitly connected to capitalism and statism. It is a tradition which, despite the achievements of black power and the civil rights movement, is one that needs to be remembered today.
What Carlos Sacrificed
As a result of their action, Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Olympic village and returned home to find themselves vilified. They were denounced as ‘Black Storm Troopers’ who had disrespected their country and shown a shocking display of ingratitude for all America had done for them. For years on end, the award winning athletes were treated as Pariahs by the political and athletics establishment. There were no sponsorships, no coaching or media jobs for these world record beaters. To feed his family, Carlos was forced to take a job as a gardener in a grocery store and an aluminium factory. As the black power movement which had inspired him and his Olympic competitor disintegrated, Carlos and his family were isolated. His marriage broke down and in 1977 after years of financial distress and ongoing depression, the same wife who had supported Carlos in 1968, took her own life. After much struggle, Carlos found a rewarding life as a school guidance councillor, though it was not until a few year ago that he and Smith earned the recognition that they were due. Carlos makes clear in his book that the fight against racism is by no means over, and that it is the responsibility of future generations to fight against it as he did.
Since Carlos’ day, the Olympics, like so many other aspects of life, has been turned into a capitalist spectacle. At Rio 2016, the podium will serve as nothing more than a symbol of individual competition and national identity. The removal of indigenous people from public view has become just as much of a tradition as the Olympic torch. Along with that has come the suppression of protest that might interfere with Olympics, and the aggressive safeguarding of private and intellectual property rights. We are told to ignore the aching contrast between public austerity and Olympic extravagance. Despite the attempted suppression of dissenting voices however, the inequalities are hard not to notice, and one way or another they are bound to collapse.