But, we don't always (or often) shine a positive light on the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. The two American men on the podium, gold medalist Tommie Smith (who had just shattered the Olympic record time) and bronze medalist John Carlos, are often mistakenly thought to be raising their fists in militant disrespect.
And I suppose that depends on your definition of militant. Was it combative? Absolutely. Violent? Maybe to closed minds that didn't want other closed minds to see a protest displayed for the world to see. What I don't think you can deny is that it was not a sign of disrespect but of absolute and all-encompassing respect.
This was 1968. Over 2 decades after Jackie Robinson broke through the color barrier in Major League Baseball and these men and their African American athlete peers were still not allowed to use some public restrooms, water fountains or stay in the same hotels as their white peers. Their brothers and friends were being sent to Vietnam and fighting and dying for their country on foreign soil and, when coming home, suffered those same inequalities. Peaceful protests on city streets for equality and simple liberties were being met by high pressured hoses, police batons and attack dogs. Public figures like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy who spoke up for them were being gunned down. If you wanted a recipe for militancy, that's as good as they get.
But, neither of these men were affiliated with a militant group. What they were were members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), a multi-race organization of American athletes. And what they opposed was the glossing over of human rights abuses across the globe. In 1968, just before the Olympics, students protested in Mexico City demanding that the country that could afford to host the Olympic games could afford to address the rampant poverty of many of its citizens. The corrupt government met this protest with fierce brutality that resulted in anywhere between 200 and 2000 deaths. The official number was covered up as were the slums of the city which bordered the airport. Huge signs and billboards of Olympic pride were literally put up all around the perimeter of the airport so that incoming athletes and guests would not see the slums and poverty.
This was what the OPHR protested. At first, their goal was a boycott of the Olympic games. But, since consensus could not be met for an all-out boycott, it was decided that each athlete should decide for him/herself how to best demonstrate.
The International Olympic Committee's president, Avery Brundage, not only did nothing to confront the abuse of the Mexican government leading up to the Olympics, he also officially banned any form of protest from the OPHR.
This was the peaceful display of global humanity through athletics that these athletes entered when they arrived in Mexico City. And this is what they decided to do. They brought black gloves (John Carlos had accidentally left his so they wound up each wearing one) and walked out to the podium in black socks and no shoes. This was their "militant" protest against poverty and racism and disrespect and a global turning of the eye to bigger victories that needed to be won. They raised their fists knowing that that could very well be the end of their racing careers. They knowingly raised their fists after receiving multiple personal death threats.
No one else knew what they were about to do before they stepped up to the podium. No one else, that is, but Peter Norman. Having just broken the Australian 200 meter record to win the silver medal, he waited with Smith and Carlos to be ushered onto the podium. He saw them removing their cleats and preparing their gloves and he, being another courageous and righteous man, asked if he could be a part. Smith and Carlos tried to tell him that he did not have to be a part of it. That it did not have to be his fight. But, Norman knew that it was. He had seen similar resistance in Australia to peaceful protests from the oppressed indigenous peoples of his country. Norman knew that this was not only his fight, this should be everyone's fight.
So, Carlos grabbed an OPHR badge from a member of the US rowing team and pinned it on Norman. And the three of them, champions from different backgrounds, different nationalities and different ethnicities stood on a podium of three different levels and formed an immediate and ever-lasting friendship and brotherhood as equals.
Each were forced to leave Mexico City and would be banned from racing ever again. Tommie Smith's Olympic record would stand until 1984. In 2000, Peter Norman would not even be honorarily invited with all of the great past Australian medal winners to the Sydney Games.
But, their story is at the heart of what the Olympics are meant to be.
First Posted On Facebook.