By Dave Zirin
August 3, 2008
The image lasted for only as long as it took to play the national
anthem -- yet it still resonates four decades later. Black American
sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, winners of the gold and
bronze medals, respectively, in the 200-meter race bow their heads
and raise their black-gloved fists to protest racism during the medal
ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Unlike other
1960s iconography -- Woodstock, Abbie Hoffman, Richard Nixon -- the
moment doesn't feel musty. It still packs a wallop.
In Harlem, street-corner merchants sell T-shirts with the image of
Smith and Carlos emblazoned on them. On HBO last month, you could
watch the 2004 documentary "Fists of Freedom," which told the story
of the protest. On ESPN, a running question for athletes competing in
the 2008 Games in Beijing, which begin Friday, is whether they will
"pull a Smith-and-Carlos" to protest the lack of human rights in China.
I recently appeared on a panel with Carlos to discuss the history of
sports and resistance. After the session, a long line of young people
born years -- even decades -- after 1968 formed to patiently wait for
the former athlete to sign posters, T-shirts and pins memorializing
his protest. What was it about that moment 40 years ago that
attracted these young people?
There are several possible explanations. The most obvious is that
people love a good redemption song. Smith and Carlos were protesting
more than racism in sports and society. They wanted South Africa and
Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) banned from the 1968 Games for their
apartheid politics. They demanded more black coaches. They sought to
hold Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic
Committee, accountable for what they saw as his racism. And they
wanted Muhammad Ali's heavyweight title restored after it was
stripped from him for his refusal to fight in Vietnam.
Smith's and Carlos' protest was part of movement called the Olympic
Project for Human Rights. As sociologist Harry Edwards, who helped
organize the group, wrote at the time, "With struggles being waged by
black people in the areas of education, housing, employment and many
others, it was only a matter of time before Afro-American athletes
shed their fantasies and delusions and asserted their manhood and
faced the facts of their existence."
Smith and Carlos were reviled for making "radical" demands and using
the Olympic podium to do it. They received death threats and lived
for years as pariahs in the sports world. But today their stand
against South Africa, racism and for Ali seems more common-sense than
radical. Rather than death threats, Smith and Carlos frequently
attend ceremonies in their honor.
There's another reason why the image of raised, black-gloved fists
has retained its power. Smith and Carlos sacrificed fame and fortune
for a larger cause -- civil rights. As Carlos told me in 2003: "A lot
of the [black] athletes thought that winning [Olympic] medals would
supersede or protect them from racism. But even if you won a medal,
it ain't going to save your momma [from the effects of racism]. It
ain't going to save your sister..."
Carlos' view resonates because we still live in a world where racism
exists. If Hurricane Katrina taught us nothing else, it's that for
every Barack Obama and Condoleezza Rice, there are many communities,
including in L.A., where the combination of poverty and racism weigh
down black Americans.
It also resonates because Smith and Carlos used the ubiquitous
platform of sports to make their stand. Today, sports is a global
trillion-dollar business that, thanks to cable television, the
Internet and corporate sponsorship, is vastly more influential than
four decades ago. Yet the idea that today's athletes would use their
hyper-exalted-brought-to-you-by-Nike platform to speak out against
injustice seems almost unthinkable. Athletes Etan Thomas of the NBA
and Scott Fujita of the NFL have spoken out on war, poverty and
racism in the U.S. Some platinum-plated stars on the U.S. Olympic
basketball team -- notably Kobe Bryant and LeBron James -- have
raised concerns about China's connection to the genocide in Darfur.
The question is whether any Olympic athlete will match the audacity
of Smith and Carlos in the 2008 Games. On Friday, the possible
appearance of Tibet's flag would again remind us that the world of
sports isn't immune to the politics of protest.
Dave Zirin, sports correspondent for the Nation, is the author of the
forthcoming "People's History of Sports in the United States."