Today we share a moment where sport and politics collided on the world stage. The year is 1968 and Mexico City are due to host the Summer Olympic Games. The USA are beginning to build one of the most dominant track and field squads in Olympic History, it featured Jim Hines who was the first person to run 100m under 10s, Dick Fosbury famous for redesigning the way the high jump is performed, Bob Beamon who’s long jump record at the games stood for 21 years and two men named Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
Smith and Carlos were students at San Jose State University, the university had developed such a formidable sprint program the it was known as ‘Speed City’. After qualifying for the games, they were part of a group who set up the Olympic Project for Human Rights, Smith said “the project was for all human rights, even for those who denied ours”. They were campaigning for better treatment of black athletes across the world and across sports, they threatened to boycott the games unless:
- South Africa were banned from competing, due to their apartheid regime at the time
- Muhammad Ali had his Heavyweight Championship reinstated after it was stripped for refusing to fight in the Vietnam war.
- Avery Brundage the IOC president was to step down, he banned Jewish athletes from competing at the 1936 Berlin games to not upset Hitler.
- To have more black coaches on the USA team during the games.
The boycott was called off a few months before the games, they had achieved two of these; the removal of South Africa and the inclusion of black coaches. During the games the team who were tipped to dominate did just that. As mentioned above Beamon won the long jump in a world record distance, Hines won the 100m in a world record time, Fosbury won the high jump with an Olympic record and Smith won the 200m with Australian Peter Norman in 2nd and John Carlos 3rd. The podium was to be their stage to peacefully protest their support of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). Peter Norman wore an OPHR badge and stood with them on the podium, Smith and Carlos took their shoes off and stood in black socks to symbolise the poverty of many black families across America, Carlos wore beads around his neck to signify the hangings of slaves and each wore a black glove and raised their fist during the national anthem to show support of black power.
Jim Hines didn’t wish to protest but agreed to not shake Avery Brundage’s hand should he hand out the medals. Three American athletes who took a clean sweep of medals in the 400m work black berets, but took them off before the anthem – drawing criticism from both camps one side disappointed they took them off and others disappointed they wore them at all.
Following their protest Avery Brundage ordered the US Olympic Committee to kick them off the team and remove them from the village, they initially refused until Brundage threatened to remove the entire US team.
Smith and Carlos were stripped of their medals and returned home to suffer with no sponsorship or job offers for years. Norman was never selected for the following Olympics in Munich despite running the qualifying time 13 times, he was also left off the invitation list for the 2000 Sydney Olympics after he refused to apologies for his support of the OPHR. He died in 2006, Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral, it took until 2012 for Australia to release a posthumous apology for their treatment of Norman.
Today at San Jose State University there is a statue depicting them on the podium, Peter Norman opted for his 2nd place step to remain empty, stating it was there for anyone who wants to stand with Tommie Smith and John Carlos in their support of human rights.
In 2016 a museum for African American history was opened in Washington DC, the third floor hosts the sports section.
The timeline begins in 1968.
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