50 stunning Olympic moments No13: Tommie Smith and John Carlos salute
Smith and Carlos, the 200m gold and bronze medallists, don black gloves and give the Black Power salute on the podium in Mexico in 1968
Posted by The Guardian Feb. 8, 2012.
On 17 October 2005 a 20ft-high statue was unveiled at San Jose State University showing their former students Tommie Smith and John Carlos frozen, fists aloft, as they had stood exactly 37 years earlier on the Olympic podium in Mexico City. “Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood for justice, dignity, equality and peace,” reads the inscription. “Hereby the university and associated students commemorate their legacy.”
Two years later Smith published his autobiography. In 2008 the pair were given the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs, something akin to an American Sports Personality of the Year awards. Carlos’s own autobiography followed last October. This, now, is their life, full of speaking engagements and interviews, publicity and publication, applause and acclaim.
In the moments before the medal ceremony in Mexico City, Carlos, Smith – as of a few moments earlier the 200 metres world record-holder – and the Australian silver-medallist Peter Norman sat in a room the athletes called “the dungeon”, deep in the bowels of the Olympic Stadium. As they prepared, they discussed what was about to happen. One of the things mentioned was the possibility of them being murdered on the spot.
“I remember telling Mr Smith: ‘Remember when we get out there, we’ve been trained as runners to listen to the gun,'” Carlos has said. “‘So when we get out there and do what we do, if the hammer hits that bullet, hit the deck. Don’t be just a duck on the table for them to just shoot at.'”
Whose idea was the raised fist? With depressing inevitability, both athletes have claimed it. According to Carlos, just before the final he suggested it to Smith: “I’m going to do something on the stand to let those in power know they’re wrong. I want you with me.” He even claimed to have deliberately lost the race, because “Tommie Smith would have never put his fist in the sky had I won”. But if this were true, why would Smith by then have procured the pair of black gloves the pair famously go on to share? Smith, meanwhile, recalled: “I told John what I was planning to do. I said: ‘You don’t have to do anything that I do, but this is what I’m going to do. Just follow my lead.'” These competing claims caused the pair to fall out for several years, but more recently Carlos has stated that the protest had been planned by the two athletes together over a period of days.
What is currently agreed on is this: they wore gloves to represent black America, and removed their shoes and wore black socks to symbolise the poverty of the American black community. Smith wore a scarf and Carlos a bead necklace, recalling lynching. Both Americans wore the badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, and they planned to raise their gloved fists, which according to Smith at the time “stood for the power in black America”.
Norman recalled those moments in “the dungeon” thus: “They involved me in the conversation. It wasn’t a secret huddle, they were letting me know. It was my suggestion that they split Tommie’s gloves because John had left his back in his room. [Then] I said to John: ‘You got another one of those badges?’ ‘If I get you one, will you wear it?’ he asked. ‘I sure would,’ I replied.”
Neither Smith nor Carlos had a spare badge, but as they walked into the light of the stadium they saw Paul Hoffman, a (white) member of the US rowing team and OPHR activist. “I was wearing my badge and he came up and said: ‘Hey mate, you got another one of those?’ So here’s this white Australian, with two black Americans, who wants to wear an OPHR badge, and I was damned if I was going to be the one who says he can’t,” Hoffman told the BBC (in the excellent documentary Black Power Salute, which you can currently see here). “So I took mine off and handed it to him.”
They reached the podium, where a rather bemused Lord Burghley, the sixth marquis of Essex – a Conservative politician and International Olympic Committee member who 40 years earlier had won gold in Amsterdam in the 400m hurdles – placed their medals around their necks. When asked later what he had thought of the gloves, he said: “I thought they had hurt their hand.”
The anthem started. Smith and Carlos thrust their fists in the air. Different people recall the reaction within the stadium very differently: Time magazine reported that “a wave of boos rippled through the spectators”, but Newsweek describes simply a “murmur [that] rippled through the stadium”, and in the New York Times it is reported that the protest “actually passed without much general notice”. What is certain is that for everybody involved, life was about to change for ever.
If San Jose’s brilliant sprinting coach, Lloyd “Bud” Winter, was responsible for them reaching the podium, another member of the university’s staff was largely responsible for what they did there: Harry Edwards, the inspirational young sociology professor and creator of the OPHR, had done much to politicise the pair – particularly Smith, by nature more reserved and less militant than his fellow medallist.
Edwards had originally advocated a black boycott of the Games. “For years we have carried the United States on our backs with our victories, and race relations are now worse than ever,” he had told the New York Times. “It’s time for the black people to stand up as men and women and refuse to be utilised as performing animals for a little extra dog food.”
The boycott was also supported by Martin Luther King, who had met Edwards and several athletes including Carlos in New York a few days before he was assassinated in April that year. “I would like to commend the outstanding athletes who have the courage and determination to make it clear that they will not participate in the 1968 Olympics until something is done about these terrible evils and injustices,” he said.
But many black athletes were keen to compete in Mexico, and when South Africa and Rhodesia were disinvited from the Games – one of the OPHR’s three main demands – the boycott plan was dropped. Other ideas swiftly took its place, and at the US trials a few weeks before the Games, officials were warned to “expect almost anything”.
So immediately after Smith and Carlos made their stand a statement was released which stated: “US Olympic officials knew they planned to do it,” and that they “did not expect to take any action”.
But then Avery Brundage got involved.
Brundage was the IOC’s president from 1952 to 1972, and he was also an antisemite, white supremacist and Nazi sympathiser, whom the athletes preferred to call “Slavery Avery”. His removal from office had been one of the OPHR’s other key demands. His pet hate – ironically, given his active involvement in the 1936 Games in Berlin, which became a propaganda exercise for the Nazi party – was the use of sport for political or nationalistic ends. He detested and did his best to ban medal tables, and in 1964 came close to passing a motion that would have denied Smith and Carlos their memorable moment, by ending the raising of national flags and the playing of anthems at medal ceremonies and replacing them with the Olympic flag and “a fanfare of trumpets”.
He might have been presenting the medals himself that day, had he not been in Acapulco watching the sailing (the original purpose of the gloves, according to Carlos, was as protection in case they were required to shake his hand). But Brundage had seen the ceremony, and he was mad as hell.
The IOC criticised Smith and Carlos for “advertising their domestic political views”, which amounted to “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit”. The US Olympic Committee, threatened with the expulsion of its entire team unless action was taken, suddenly changed its tune, putting out a second statement apologising for an act of “untypical exhibitionism … which violates the basic standards of sportsmanship and good manners which are so highly regarded in the United States”. Smith and Carlos were given 48 hours to pack their bags and leave the country. Hoffman, for the crime of lending Norman his badge, was very nearly expelled as well, and got away with it only because his father was a judge and a personal friend of many American officials.
The protest had not been much better received back home. “‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ is the motto of the Olympic Games. ‘Angrier, nastier, uglier’ better describes the scene in Mexico City last week,” reported Time, describing the protest as “a public display of petulance that sparked one of the most unpleasant controversies in Olympic history”. Associated Press called it “a bizarre demonstration”. One of few voices of support from white America came from Robert Clark, the enlightened president of San Jose State, who praised them as “honourable young men dedicated to the cause of justice for the Black people in our society”.
Back in Mexico City, Jesse Owens was sent to talk black athletes out of staging similar protests (though he was ignored, and considered a white apologist by many). They were told “A repetition of such incidents … would warrant the imposition of the severest penalties at the disposal of the US Olympic Committee.” But protests of varying degrees of subtlety abounded. After a black American clean sweep in the men’s 400m, won by Lee Evans, another student of Edwards at San Jose State, all three athletes wore berets to their medal ceremony. Long-jump gold-medallist Bob Beamon wore black socks pulled up high, while the bronze-medallist, Ralph Boston, went barefoot. “They’re going to have to send me home, too,” he said. They did not. The women’s 4x100m relay team publicly dedicated their own gold medals to Carlos and Smith.
(But another athlete, the heavyweight boxer George Foreman, who claims he “thought about going home myself” in solidarity after Smith and Carlos were expelled, then celebrated his own gold medal by waving a little American flag in the ring. He was castigated in the black community. “I felt what I did was right, and I think they appreciate me more for doing what I think was right than following what they think was right,” Foreman said the following month. In his autobiography Smith says Foreman’s flag-waving made him “very bitter, very angry”.)
What happened next?
The BBC paid them $1,000 in cash for an exclusive interview. Will you not benefit from the notoriety and publicity the protest has generated, they were asked. “I can’t eat that,” Carlos said. “And the kids round my block can’t eat it. They can’t eat publicity, they can’t eat gold medals. All they want is an equal chance to be a human being.”
The truth of this observation was clear after their return to America. After a near-violent scrum of reporters assaults them in Los Angeles, they board a second flight to San Jose. “Once we got back we were ostracised, even by our own,” Smith said. “Folks were scared, man. No jobs. We couldn’t find work. People even told us, ‘We can’t get close to you guys because we have our own jobs to protect.’ These were my friends. At least, they were my friends before I left for Mexico City.”
Smith’s agent cancelled their contract, and Smith was sacked from his job washing cars. Within two years his mother had died, his marriage was over, and he was unemployed and broke. “My mother died of a heart attack in 1970 as a result of pressure delivered to her from farmers who sent her manure and dead rats in the mail because of me,” he said. “My brothers in high school were kicked off the football team, my brother in Oregon had his scholarship taken away.”
Carlos fared little better. “I came back ‘John Carlos the neighbourhood bum’,” he has said. “I would soon have no money and I had to beg, borrow, steal and gamble to pay my rent. I remember chopping the furniture up for firewood and my wife looking at me as if I was crazy. But our heating was electric and I couldn’t pay my electricity bill, so we had to take the kids to sleep by the fireplace.” His wife left him, and in 1977 she took her own life. “I lost my first wife in this thing. But I’ll never be bitter toward anyone,” he said. “Not for the criticisms or the death threats or anything. If I’m bitter, they win.”
Peter Norman’s time of 20.06 remains an Australian record, and would have won the gold medal in two of the past three Olympics. He continued to race, competing in the 1970 Commonwealth Games, but even though he comfortably reached qualifying standards in 1972 for both the 100m and 200m, for which he was at the time ranked No5 in the world, he was not selected, and Australia travelled to Munich with no sprinters at all. When the Olympics were held in Sydney in 2000 notable Australian former medallists were invited to take part in a ceremony at the Olympic Stadium; Norman was not among them. He made it to the stadium only after officials from US Track & Field heard of their plight and stepped in. “They treated us like royalty,” said his second wife, Jan (his first marriage also failed after 1968). When Norman died in 2006, Smith and Carlos acted as pallbearers. “He didn’t raise his fist,” Smith said, “but he did lend a hand.”
The redemption of Smith and Carlos started in 1983, when the president of the organising committee of the Los Angeles Games, Peter Ueberroth, hired Carlos as special consultant on minority affairs. Ueberroth personally handled the resulting storm of protest, but Carlos’s work was later seen as one of the key factors behind the success of the Games.
Looking back at the bad times, Carlos has said: “If I’ve got to take a whuppin’ for something I believe in, I’ll take that whuppin’.”
What the Guardian said: 18 October 1968
Although every athletics expert was aware that the United States Negro athletes might protest, the manner of it surprised many in the Olympic Stadium here last night.
It was more restrained and yet more effective than some had thought. There was the possibility that Tommie Smith or John Carlos, overwhelming favourites for the sprint events, might refuse to appear at the medals ceremony. In fact, both showed a keen awareness of the publicity values involved, and their appearance in black socks and black scarves, and each with a single black glove, Smith’s on the right hand, Carlos’s on the left, showed a knowledge of public relations equalled only by Cassius Clay, now Muhammad Ali
At the press conference afterwards, the same awareness was apparent. The representatives of the world’s press crowded into a room perhaps 40 feet by 30. The organisation insisted that questions and replies were put in English, Spanish and French.
International press conferences usually begin with pussy-footing questions of remarkable banality. The first question to Carlos was why he looked over his left shoulder and whether it cost him second place – a good technical question but utterly remote from the emotional context of the occasion …
Questions concerning which coach had meant most to Smith were hooted off court by all except the conscientious interpreters. Finally Carlos lost patience and burst out with the statement: “We are black and we are proud to be black in white America.”
Black Americans, he said, would understand the nature of their demonstration.
“We are not a show horse doing a performance, so if we do a good job we get paid some peanuts. All through these Olympics I hear them say ‘Boy, boy, boy, you’re doing well.’ I am tired of that. I want the whole press of the world to hear what I say and either say it as I say it or not say it at all.”
… The US team officials were obviously left with a problem. What, if any, disciplinary action would be taken. “I’d pack them all back home,” one British official said trenchantly. He perhaps has no White House to deal with.