1968 Mexico City Summer Olympic Games

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1968 Mexico City Summer Olympic Games

Few who witnessed Tommie Smith's and John Carlos's black power salute on the medal stand on 16 October, 1968, following their gold and bronze medal performances in the 200 meters at the Mexico City Olympic Games, could remain neutral about the sentiments behind their protest. Fewer still could challenge the symbolic significance of their action. Nor was it possible to explain their stance as the actions of isolated extremists, for while they provided the most public protest of those games, their action articulated a political sentiment that was widespread among African American athletes competing for the United States. Smith and Carlos, in stocking feet, wearing black beads and black scarves, with their black-gloved fists raised over their heads as the American national anthem was played, used the biggest stage in sports to air grievances about racial injustice in the United States.

The Mexico City Olympics had arrived during a transitional period in the American civil rights movement. Although the movement had achieved important success in gaining legal protections for African Americans, particularly in dismantling "Jim Crow" laws mandating segregation in the southern states, the movement had been less successful in ameliorating economic disparity between whites and blacks. Frustrated with white America's lack of commitment to change, many younger African Americans, especially men, increasingly supported the more militant black power wing of the movement, turning away from older leaders who had emphasized alliances with white liberals.

These changes were reflected within the sports world. Led by Harry Edwards, a sociologist at San Jose State in the late 1960s, a group of 50 to 60 African American athletes representing several sports, particularly track and field, formed the Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organization which hoped to use its visibility within the sports world for political action. Reflecting prejudices even among individuals fighting against bigotry, however, membership was limited to men. Although members of the project rejected a suggestion that they boycott the Mexico City Games in protest, some athletes resolved to take individual action. The assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King in April, 1968, only heightened tensions in the months leading up to the games, as did attempts by the white Olympic leadership to allow South Africa in the games, despite that nation's policy of racial apartheid.

These Olympic Games saw tremendous performances by African American athletes, as many resolved to make their statements through competition. African American athletes won ten golds and set seven world records in track and field. Several black athletes, including heavyweight boxer George Foreman, also won gold medals in other sports.

As a result of their silent protest, Smith and Carlos were stripped of their medals, becoming the only athletes to be punished in that way for political reasons by the United States Olympic Committee. (Silver medalist Peter Norman of Australia, a white athlete who also participated in the protest, was severely reprimanded by his national sports federation as well.) Their protest highlighted the relationship between race, politics, and sports in their era, much as Jesse Owens' victories in the 1936 Berlin Games had done for his.

—John Smolenski

Further Reading:

Espy, Richard. The Politics of the Olympic Games. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1979.

Guttman, Allen. The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Moore, Kenny. "A Courageous Stand: In '68, Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos Raised Their Fists for Racial Justice." Sports Illustrated. August 5, 1991.

——. "The Eye of the Storm: The Lives of the U.S. Olympians Who Protested Racism in 1968 Were Changed Forever." Sports Illustrated. August 12, 1991.

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1968 Mexico City Summer Olympic Games

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1968 Mexico City Summer Olympic Games