Povich Rewind: Olympic Protest
By Beth Mechum
In the wake of the nationwide response to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s recent decision to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem, a “rewind” of a Shirley Povich 1968 column from Mexico City editorializes on a similar situation. U.S. Olympic medal winners John Carlos and Tommie Smith had raised black-gloved fists during the medal ceremony in protest of treatment of blacks in the U.S.
Sports has always been a lightning rod for social change in the country. But when track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith stood on the viewing stand in Mexico City in 1968 to accept their Olympic Medals—and raised their black-gloved fists while lowering their heads in protest over treatment of blacks in the U.S.—their actions took the debate to a new level. Povich, like many of his contemporaries, was very patriotic. But he respected Carlos and Smith for the cause they were protesting and understood their grievances. He also felt the U.S. Olympic Committee leaders were reactionary to a fault and never forgave them, particularly its leader, Avery Brundage, for excluding Jewish athletes from the U.S. team at Berlin in 1936.
Mexico City, Oct. 18—U.S. Olympic officials conveniently might have chosen to cast a blind eye at two black gloves encasing the upraised fists of two Negro medal winners. It seemed, in fact, that was their intention until the International Olympic Committee brought strong pressure. So they kicked the two sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, out of the Olympic Village and off the American team.
Whether this strong action by the IOC was necessary is highly debatable. Smith and Carlos, who ran one-three in the 200-meter finals, did not disrupt any Olympic even by their actions on the ceremonial stand. Their sin was the technical one of violating the U.S. Olympic manual which prescribes the official U.S. uniform on the winners’ stand. Without added adornments.
In their protest of the Negro’s racial position in America, Smith and Carlos showed up in black-power symbols. They wore knee-length black socks that were conspicuously a new thought. Smith wore a black scarf. And each wore a black glove on one hand.
One American Olympic official said he was willing to overlook these appurtenances, but that he was outraged by the failure of Smith and Carlos to respect the American Flag and the National Anthem that was being played in salute to their capture of gold and bronze medals. Throughout the Star Spangled Banner, the two athletes cast their faces to the ground. In contrast, the silver-medal winner, Australia’s Peter Norman, on the stand with them, was at erect attention during the anthem.
When Smith and Carlos marched down from the stands and across the track toward their quarters in the stadium it was with their black-gloved fists still held high and resolute in protest. If it was unpatriotic in the view of most observers, the courage and dignity of their revolt-gesture was inescapable. The mild revolutionists are rare.
By finishing first and third they had won their chance to exploit their protest. Worldwide telecision cameras and news services do not tune in on losers. Even those who would deplore the time and the place of their demonstration will concede that a right of protest was theirs. Passage of the Civil Rights Acts by the American Congress affirmed the Negroes’ complaint of 300 years of injustice.
This, then, was the chance of Smith and Carlos to tell the world of their militancy and protest with an impact never before offered a Negro, athlete or otherwise. They took that chance, took the consequences, took their medals and were going home. It was not nice that they did not give full attention to the American flag but their sin otherwise was less than horrible.
There is a reason for thinking the Olympic panjandrums blundered in dealing out the ultimate punishment to Smith and Carlos. They thus trebled the impact of the entire episode and also the martyrdom of those two militants, who now are better able to carry their cause to more places.
Actually, there was reason to believe the U.S. committee was prepared to ignore the incident until the International Olympic Committee stuck in its oar with a statement processed through Avery Brundage, protesting the U.S. athletes’ “deliberate violation of the accepted principle by using the occasion to advertise domestic political views.” The statement deliberately put the U.S. committee on responsibility to the other Olympic nations.
The U.S. committee did not react late Wednesday when the black power revolt occurred. Not until the IOC made the suggestion did the U.S. committee take action. The expulsion of the pair had quick effects in the American compound in Olympic Village, splitting the colony into factions. From one window on the eighth floor, a hung bedsheet proclaimed, “Down with Brundage.” This proved to be the room occupied by Carlos and Lee Evans.
Signs on a third-story window told of support for the U.S. Olympic Committee, plus racial implications: “Wallace for President. Win the War in Vietnam.” Interestingly enough, a probe proved that these third-story rooms were occupied by members of the U.S. Olympic rifle team, members of the National Rifle Association, which is not famous for advocacy of the Negroes’ progress in America.
Carlos, the most militant of the Negroes on the U.S. team, has not been a popular figure in the village. Somebody snuck into his room and smashed his record player after complaining for days at the repetitious loud soul music he likes in the dining room. Japanese and Canadian athletes complained officially that Carlos was bringing his record player with him and annoying them with his loud records.
Tom McKibbon, an oarsman from San Diego in the single sculls, expressed the point of view of the moderates in Olympic Village after the expulsion was announced. “I’ve got mixed emotions,” he said. “IT was a strong action to take, throwing them off the team. But they had a strong reason to protest, and this is the right place for it. No nation is free of race problems.” The Harvard crew said the same sort of thing.
– October 19, 1968