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The Olympics: Black Complaint

4 minute read

“Faster, Higher, Stronger” is the motto of the Olympic Games. “Angrier, nastier, uglier” better describes the scene in Mexico City last week. There, in the same stadium from which 6,200 pigeons swooped skyward to signify the opening of the “Peace Olympics,” Sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two disaffected black athletes from the U.S. put on a public display of petulance that sparked one of the most unpleasant controversies in Olympic history and turned the high drama of the games into theater of the absurd.

Smith had just won the 200-meter dash in a record-breaking 19.8 sec. Carlos, his bearded teammate from San Jose State College, had finished third. Together, they turned up for the awards ceremony shoeless, wearing knee-length black stockings and a black glove on one hand (the right for Tommie, the left for John). Along with Australia’s Peter Norman, the second-place finisher, they mounted the victory pedestal to receive their medals. Then, as the U.S. flag was raised and the band struck up The Star-Spangled Banner, the two black athletes bowed their heads and raised their gloved hands in a clenched-fist salute. A wave of boos rippled through the spectators as the pair left the field. Smith and Carlos responded by making interesting gestures at the stands.

At a press conference later, the two men explained that the black stockings represented poverty; the black fists meant black power and black unity. Said Smith: “We are black and proud to be black. White America will say ‘an American won,’ not ‘a black American won.’ If it had been something bad, they would have said ‘a Negro.’ ” Added Carlos, somewhat disjointedly: “White people seem to think we’re animals. I want people to know we’re not animals, not inferior animals, like cats and rats. They think we’re some sort of show horse. They think we can perform and they will throw us some peanuts and say ‘Good boy, good boy.’ “

Effective but Petty. As a way of calling attention to racial strife in the U.S., the demonstration was undeniably effective. But it was also painfully petty. East Germans, Russians, even Cubans, all stand at attention when The Star-Spangled Banner or any other national anthem is played. Other equally militant U.S. black athletes were aghast at Smith and Carlos’ actions. “I came here to win a gold medal—not to talk about black power,” said Ohio’s Willie Davenport next day after winning the 110-meter high hurdles. He stood straight and tall and proud on the Olympic pedestal.

Embarrassed and angry, the U.S. Olympic Committee met for four hours, then issued a strong reprimand to Smith and Carlos, and apologies to the International Olympic Committee, the Mexican Organizing Committee and the Mexican people. That might have ended the incident. But a month before the games opened, crusty, old Avery Brundage, 81, perennial chairman of the I.O.C., had warned all competitors that no political demonstrations would be permitted. That challenge helped guarantee the trouble that came, and the I.O.C. bullheadedly proceeded to make a bad scene worse. Unless U.S. officials actually punished Smith and Carlos, the I.O.C. threatened to expel the whole U.S. team from the Olympics. Reluctantly, the U.S. committee suspended the two athletes from the team and ordered them to leave the American quarters at the Olympic Village.

Shocked by the extreme severity of the punishment, other U.S. athletes—both black and white—rallied to Smith and Carlos’ defense. “This is terrible, awful,” said Highjumper Ed Caruthers, a Negro. “If Tommie and John have to go home,” said Sprinter Ron Freeman, “I think there will be a lot of guys going home.” “Some white ones too,” added Hammer Thrower Harold Connolly. Most distraught by Smith and Carlos’ suspension was their close friend and fellow militant Lee Evans, favorite to win last week’s 400-meter dash at Mexico City. So shaken that he had to be helped onto a bus bound for the stadium from the Olympic Village, Evans recovered, won his race and shattered the world record with a clocking of 43.8 sec. Behind him came two other U.S. blacks—Larry James and Ron Freeman—to give the U.S. its first sweep of the games.

“I wasn’t going to run until John Carlos told me I had to,” said Evans. But he was clearly not taking too many orders. All three 400-meter runners wore black berets to the awards ceremony, and all three stood bareheaded at attention for their national anthem.

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