“It was a story that should have made headlines for one day,” Robert Paul, who was the United States Olympic Committee’s publicist at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, told me recently. “If they had handled the whole affair right, with some reason, tolerance and common sense, it would have been something we could now look back on with pride. Instead, it’s the Olympics’ biggest ongoing shame.”
We were discussing the most famous gesture of protest in Olympic history, the supposed black-power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand of the 200 meters at the 1968 Games. And we kept coming to a paradox: While American critics are scoring points right now on the subject of Chinese civil-rights abuses and questionable athletic practices, they continue to forget that there is one big wrong that needs to be righted on the home front.
Smith and Carlos were members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which was organized by the sociologist Harry Edwards and others to draw attention to racism in sports and society. One of their priorities was pressuring the International Olympic Committee to bar South Africa for its apartheid policies, which it subsequently did. The group’s members weren’t just blacks — Peter Norman, who finished second in the 200, was one of many white athletes who wore the group’s pin.
There was talk of a boycott of the 1968 Olympics by African-American athletes; it never happened, although some stars, such as the All-America basketball player Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) staged a silent protest by refusing to try out for the Olympic team. For his part, Smith decided that if he won the 200 meters — and he did, in 19.83 seconds, a world record that stood for 11 years — he would make his own statement.
A few minutes before the medal presentation, Payton Jordan, the head coach of the track and field team, and sprint coach Stan Wright approached Robert Paul, the publicist, in the press section. Jordan told Paul that he had given Smith and Carlos permission to wear black socks. Did Paul, the coaches asked, know what was going on? Moments later, Smith, his wife, Carlos and the sportswriter Pete Axthelm walked down the press-box aisle, headed for the presentation stage. Did anyone know, Paul asked Jordan, why Mrs. Smith was holding a black glove in each hand?
Avery Brundage, the iron-fisted boss of the International Olympic Committee, must also have thought that something was up, as he did not appear to award Smith, Norman and Carlos their medals. “I really didn’t know what I was going to do with the gloves,” Tommie Smith told me in a recent telephone conversation. “I was thinking about wearing both of them but quickly realized that would make no sense.”
Walking toward the stand — his wife had by then passed the gloves along to the runners — he decided to “represent the flag with pride, but do it with a black accent.” Wearing their medals, they raised clenched, gloved fists as the national anthem was played — Smith his right, Carlos his left. It was done, Smith says, “in military style” — Smith was in the R.O.T.C. at the time. “My head was down,” he says, “because I was praying.”
“I wanted to embody my pride and love for what America is supposed to be,” he told me. “There was no hate, no hostility shown or intended.” It was not, contrary to how it has been portrayed in the media, intended as a black-power salute.
The next morning, Brundage told Douglas F. Roby, the American committee’s president, that if Smith and Carlos weren’t removed from the team then the entire United States track and field team would be banned from the rest of competition. Roby didn’t dare defy Brundage; he told the two athletes in person that they could keep their medals but they had to leave the Olympic Village.
Was there any precedent for what Smith and Carlos had done in Mexico City? In 1936, German athletes made the Nazi salute when awarded their medals. Brundage, then president of the United States Olympic Committee, made no objection, and rejected any proposals for boycotting the Berlin games.
In the years after Mexico City, both Smith and Carlos found life to be difficult. They had trouble finding work. In the late ’70s Carlos’s wife committed suicide. He blamed the pressure put on him by his Olympic protest. Smith, fired from his job at North American Pontiac upon returning from Mexico City, eventually became a professor and track coach at Santa Monica College.
Brundage died in 1975. In the 33 years since his death, Smith and Carlos say, neither has ever had so much as a feeler from either the International Olympic Committee or United Sates Olympic Committee regarding reconciliation. Neither has been voted into the American group’s hall of fame, even though Smith, by his count, once held world records in 11 different events, the most ever by a track and field athlete.
“I think their attitude is, ‘Why bring it up?’ ” Smith told me in our recent conversation. “Why rock the boat now?” But if some conscientious official was looking to right a wrong that grows larger with each passing Olympics, would Smith be conducive towards hearing them out? “I would” he said, then, after a pause, “take what they say into account. I would listen.” Would anyone at the United States Olympic Committee like Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’s phone numbers?
Allen Barra, the author of The Last Coach: A Life of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant.