Recently I've been thinking a bit about athletes and social conscience; whether elite athletes are less likely than the general population to speak out against social injustice, and if so, why that might be; and also whether particular athletes shy away from controversy at the expense of their principles, and whether we should hold their silence against them.
In other words, I've been exercising the atrophied right side of my brain. I'm not sure yet what will come of that, but I'll get back to you. In the meantime, some new food for thought: Tommie Smith and John Carlos have been immortalized at San Jose State.
In 1968, Smith and Carlos, the gold and bronze medallists in the 200m, stood on the Olympic medal podium without shoes. During the playing of the US national anthem, they stood with heads down and black-gloved fists raised.
As with most such symbols, these gestures have come to mean many different things to different people. Clearly the protesters were speaking out against the oppression of African-Americans in the United States. Both men were very active in the civil rights movement long before the Olympics. In 1968, they became involved with the Olympic Project for Human Rights, led by a professor from SJSU named Harry Edwards. OPHR had tried to organize an Olympic boycott by black American athletes that never materialized. It is often reported that the podium protest was "inspired" by Edwards; Carlos himself discounts Edwards' influence:
Harry had nothing whatsoever to do with it. That's one of the things that needs to be straightened out and will be straightened out. It was a decision, collectively, between Tommie Smith and John Carlos … he wanted to ride on what Tommie Smith and John Carlos did.
Of course the Olympics provide a global stage, not just a national one, and to some extent the protest was part of a much larger picture and linked to the civil rights movement around the world. Just before the start of the 1968 games, several hundred students and workers were killed by security forces in Mexico City. In a strange coincidence of timing, Mexican authorities announced earlier this month that they will bring charges against interior minister (and later president) Luis Echeverria in connection with that massacre.
Justice has also been long in coming for Smith and Carlos. As a reward for their their peaceful protests, the two sprinters were suspended from all further competition and sent home by the USOC. They were not quickly forgiven. In certain quarters, their actions were even linked to the tragedy in 1972. By wordlessly expressing an uncomfortable truth, they had "politicized" the Olympic Games.
Tommie Smith has some thoughts on the questions that started this post: "What happened back then can never happen again, because the dollar bill has ruined the pride of justice." I think that this is an argument worth considering. It is also interesting to ask whether public attitudes toward this kind of protest have changed in the last 37 years. Would an athlete be sent home from a competition and publicly rebuked for making a non-violent protest of this sort today?
Has the world changed so much? Consider the case of Canadian swimmer Jennifer Carroll and the uproar (scroll down) she caused when she carried a Québec flag onto the Commonwealth Games medal podium. Dave Johnson, the team's head coach, forced Carroll to apologize to her teammates, and to him, and made a direct comparison between her action and the Smith/Carlos protest in 1968 — clearly implying that such non-conformist behaviour was unacceptable.
In my opinion, however, most of the controversy surrounded Mr. Johnson's actions; most people did not object to Carroll's gesture. Johnson has since been fired, and I do not think that Carroll's athletic career suffered as a result of her actions. Of course, those actions did not constitute a protest since Carroll denied that she was expressing any political sentiment. The connection to 1968 is tenuous indeed.
So, two more questions for me to think about: will the Olympics ever see another Tommie Smith and John Carlos? And if so, how will the world react?