I still clearly see in my mind’s eye the raised black-gloved fists of gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos soaring into the air of history during the track and field medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. As the Star Spangled Banner blared throughout the stadium, Smith and Carlos stood to salute all the human rights workers and the victims of injustice in the United States and throughout the world.
They both ascended the winner’s platform shoeless wearing black socks to highlight black poverty. Representing black pride, Smith wore a black scarf around his neck, and Carlos unzipped the top of his tracksuit in solidarity with all working class blue collar workers in the United States. He wore a strand of beads, which he declared, “were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and 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.”
I watched the ceremonies from my university dormitory lounge with other residents, while tear tracks of pride streamed down my face, not merely because of my connections with Smith and Carlos as undergraduate students at the same institution, San José State University, but because they clearly demonstrated not only the political potential, but more importantly, the very political nature of sport to forever transform minds, hearts, and souls for the betterment of society.
Not everyone, though, even at my university, supported their actions, stating that the purpose of sport is for entertainment only, and not to advance a political policy or agenda. Avery Brundage, International Olympic Committee president, scolded the athletes and the U.S. Olympic Committee for bringing domestic politics into “the apolitical, international forum [of] the Olympic Games.” Soon following Smith and Carlos’ actions, the U.S. Olympic Committee suspended them from the team and barred them from the Olympic Village. My university, however, gave them a hero’s standing ovation when they returned to campus, and we honored the two athletes with a 22-foot high statue in 2005.
I suggest to those who assert the “apolitical” nature of sport to ask President Jimmy Carter why he chose to have the U.S. boycott the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Ask the athletes and spectators at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia why they proudly waved rainbow flags and wore rainbow garments, held placards, and publicly embraced and kissed others of the same sex as Russian authorities passed legislation and cracked down on so-called “homosexual propaganda.”