Mexico City
16th October 1968

US athlete Tommie Smith wins the 200 meter race with a world-record time of 19.83 seconds. Australia’s Peter Norman finishes second with a time of 20.06 seconds, and the US’s John Carlos comes in third place with a time of 20.10 seconds.

When they get to the podium for the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos wearing OPHR badges on their tracksuits (Silver medalist Peter Norman, an Australian, wore one too) and no shoes to symbolize the poverty that plagued so many black Americans, bow their heads rasing their black-gloved hands and remain silent, while The Star-Spangled Banner plays in the background. Carlos wears a necklace of black beads, he said, “for those individuals that were lynched or killed that no one said a prayer for, that were hung tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage.” Smith wears a black scarf. 

The sprinters had been active in the civil rights movement long before they arrived in Mexico City. Along with Harry Edwards, one of their professors at San Diego State University, Smith and Carlos had organized the group called the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) that tried to encourage African-American athletes to boycott the Games. “Even if you won the medal,” Carlos said, “it ain’t going to save your momma. It ain’t going to save your sister or your children. It might give you 15 minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life?”


Black Power Logo

People in the crowd boos and curses at the athletes. The IOC convens the next day on the 17th and determines that Smith and Carlos would have to forfeit their medals and leave the Olympic Village—and Mexico—immediately. Avery Brundage, head of the International Olympic Committee even threatens to boot the entire American team as punishment. “The untypical exhibitionism of these athletes violates the basic standards of good manners and sportsmanship, which are so highly valued in the United States,” the U.S. Olympic Committee says “Such immature behavior is an isolated incident” and “a willful disregard of Olympic principles.”

The media barrage as the Los Angeles Times accuses Smith and Carlos of a “Nazi-like salute” and the Chicago Tribune calls their actions “an embarrassment visited upon the country,” an “act contemptuous of the United States,” and “an insult to their countrymen.” But the most shameful display comes from a young reporter for the Chicago American named Brent Musburger who calls them “a pair of black-skinned storm troopers”, a slur for which he is yet to apologize.

In 1968, the main demands of OPHR centered around

  • the removal of open bigot “Slavery” Avery Brundage as head of the International Olympic Committee, who ceased the participation of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia,
  • hiring more African-American coaches and
  • restoring Muhammad Ali’s boxing title, stripped over his resistance to the United States’ war in Vietnam.

Today, Avery Brundage, Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa are thankfully in history’s trash, African-American coaches are hired without controversy and Muhammad Ali is celebrated as a saint.

Today, in 2013, the issues have certainly changed, but the need to revive, rebuild and relaunch an Olympic Project for Human Rights has never been more urgent.

The Olympics and injustice still merges seamlessly behind the huge curtains of glitz and glamour that is propagated around the games. Helpless poor residents are displaced under the shadow of massive constructions, products from global capitalist brands sponsoring the games are sold with the IOC seals of approval damaging local businessmen and forcing them to shut down. The poor of a city are herded off, jailed or even disappeared in the name of making an Olympic city pristine for visiting dignitaries.

The world witnessed the eviction of thousands of Rio’s poorest sections very recently in the name of the Olympics. An Amnesty International report says that in the 7 years of Brazil’s preparations for the 2016 Olympics, awarded to them in 2009, over 2500 citizens have been killed by the security forces; most of them- young black men. 

“I don’t feel embraced, I feel like a survivor, like I survived cancer”- John Carlos

Dave Zirin proposes The idea of a new Olympic Project for Human Rights that could have demands that directly address these issues-

  • No involuntary evictions.
  • No pre-emptive arrests of citizens.
  • No awarding the games to countries that violate internationally recognized standards of human rights.
  • No punishing athletes for speaking their minds and using the Olympics to take a stand for something other than McDonald’s and Pepsi.

An artist’s impression depicting Rio’s situation

Upon returning home, Carlos, Smith and Norman faced the daily struggles of being pariahs and having to scrap just to survive. As Dr. Carlos said to me in 2003, “I don’t feel embraced, I feel like a survivor, like I survived cancer. It’s like if you are sick and no one wants to be around you, and when you’re well everyone who thought you would go down for good doesn’t even want to make eye contact. It was almost like we were on a deserted island. That’s where Tommy Smith and John Carlos were. But we survived.”

This sacrifice of privilege and glory, fame and fortune, for a larger cause is something they never regretted.
As Dave Zirin puts it in his column for The Nation, ” The best way to honor their sacrifice is not just to learn their story, praise their courage and pat ourselves on the back that we no longer face the specters of Avery Brundage and Rhodesia. It is to make the history come alive and demand justice from an International Olympic Committee that now has more in common with a criminal cartel than a guardian of what is best about sports.