When sport counted
08 August 2012 | JEREMY GORDIN
Tommie Smith (US) won the 200m race in a world-record time of 19,83 seconds, with Australia’s Peter Norman second in a time of 20,06 seconds, and John Carlos, also of the US, in third place with a time of 20,10.
The three went to collect their medals. Smith and Carlos wore black socks only (no shoes), to represent black poverty.
Carlos also wore a necklace of beads, which he said “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 (the slave trade from Africa to the Americas).”
Then the two men made history by both raising their black-gloved fists and giving the so-called Black Power salute. It came at a turbulent time, as the Financial Times noted recently.
“The Vietnam War was raging and Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been slain months earlier.
The Black Panther movement had burst into the national spotlight and black people across America were pressing for equal rights.”
The salute was followed by jeers and abuse from the crowd and fellow athletes. The two were expelled from the US team. In a recent interview in the FT, Carlos said he couldn’t find work, received death threats, and his wife later committed suicide due to the pressure.
The salute was a moment that shifted Olympic history forever.
Even well-meaning commentators struggled to get their minds around the event. I remember reading an article about it in the “airmail edition” of The Manchester Guardian, now The Guardian.
It’s been 43 years since I read that article but, if I remember correctly, the writer was Chris Chataway, an Olympics athlete and also Roger Bannister’s paceman in the first sub-four minute mile.
He wrote that what was really notable was that Smith and Carlos were each holding a certain make of running shoe. In other words, their protest was merely a clever marketing campaign and that it marked the start of capitalism making serious inroads at the Olympics!
Carlos, au contraire, said earlier this year: “The race had no relevance for me other than I had to get on the victory stand (and make my protest).”
I’ve been thinking of Carlos these past few days as I’ve watched various athletes receive their medals.
There’s been an awful lot of weeping on the podium, hasn’t there?
I’ve got nothing against men (or women) bawling. Winning an Olympic medal is obviously a deeply emotional event.
“What’s the matter with you, dad?” as my son keeps asking rhetorically. “X is going home to say that s/he has won Olympic gold. It’s really a big deal.”
I know it’s a big deal. But I also know that Chataway was right. After all, the athletes and swimmers are going home to benefit from massive sponsorship deals and such.
People like Carlos, on the other hand, really had something to bawl about, but didn’t.
What’s more, they were thinking about a great deal more than their self-important little selves.
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