The Olympics: Remembering Tommie Smith and John Carlos
Recall, if you can, this salute:
As the eyes of the world were on them, Smith, Carlos and and Norman headed out to the field for the medal ceremony. Carlos realized he had forgotten his glove. “My father suggested they share Smith’s pair and each wear one,” says Matt. Peter also asked the Americans for an [Olympic Project For Human Rights] badge to wear to show his respect for what they were about to do. What you can’t clearly see in the photo is that the Americans were also shoeless, to symbolize poverty. Carlos wore beads, and Smith a black scarf, around their necks to symbolize the lynchings that were taking place in the American South.
The crowd grew angry, which surprised the three athletes. “I threw my arm up, and said ‘Please, God, get me out of here,’” recalls Smith.
Media fallout from the salute and its obvious message was swift and surprisingly negative. And Smith and Carlos suffered the consequences:
Smith and Carlos returned to the U.S. and struggled to find work. Carlos’s wife eventually committed suicide: Carlos blamed it on the condemnations and media attacks. Despite the years of working manual labor and feeling ostracized, Carlos says he would do it again. “I didn’t like the way the world was, and I believe there need to be some changes in the way the world is,” Carlos wrote in The John Carlos Story.
1968 was a different world from 2012. Mexico was in turmoil. Its army had killed unarmed demonstrators. Europe was afire with change. US colleges and universities were protesting. Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. The world was seething. And now all of that has gone.
Now the Olympics are just entertainment. They are an extremely corporate, very commercial event from which even the thought of protest on the world stage has been effectively banished. Instead, athletes who win gold medals don't make gestures. Or protests. Or remarks. No. They just cash in. They seek corporate endorsements and loot. They don't raise human rights concerns.
In their conformity to the sport as entertainment creed, in their silence, athletes have become even less like their audience. They've reconciled themselves to being wonderful, interesting, maybe even delightful instruments of distraction. And we, their audience, are significantly poorer for their conformity.