Olympic Athletes on Podium
Olympic Athletes on Podium
Date: October 17, 1968
Source: AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.
About the Photographer: This photograph is a part of the photographic archive maintained by the Associated Press, an international news media organization.
During the summer of 1968, American race relations were a more persistent and contentious social issue than at any time since the end of the Civil War. Ironically, black athletes had established themselves as elite performers in every major team sport in the United States: In the National Football League, players such as Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, and David (Deacon) Jones were stars. NBA centers Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were basketball icons. The major league baseball color barrier had fallen only 20 years before; black players such as Willie Mays and Henry Aaron were stars generally accepted on an equal footing with the best white players.
The performance of the United States Summer Olympic team in 1968 corresponded with the success enjoyed by black athletes in American professional sports. One hundred meter sprinter Jim Hines and long jumper Bob Beamon both established world records in their events. The world record set by 400-meter runner Lee Evans in Mexico remained unbroken for almost 25 years.
The ascendancy of so many athletes, however, stood in stark contrast to the social dilemmas created by desegregation and the problems faced by ordinary black Americans. Issues such as school integration, voter registration laws, and initiatives to help blacks secure better employment opportunities all spurred protracted national debate.
By 1968, discontent within the black communities of the United States had spawned a variety of organizations and individuals dedicated to social change. Some, such as Dr. Martin Luther King (1929–1968), advocated nonviolent means to accomplish their goals. Others, such as Malcolm X (1925–1965) and groups such as the Black Panthers, advocated more violent measures to achieve equality. "Black power" became a catchphrase that described any organization or attitude that sought to advance black interests.
Against this backdrop of American success and social upheaval, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists respectively in the 200-meter sprint final, ascended the Olympic podium.
OLYMPIC ATHLETES ON PODIUM
See primary source image.
The photograph of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos is one of the most famous in the history of sport. Their clenched fists and bowed heads remain the most enduring image of the 1968 Summer Olympics.
The gesture was not entirely a surprise to other members of the United States Olympic Team. In the period leading up to the Olympics in October 1968, Smith and other black athletes had been encouraged to boycott the Games by an American organization, the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) which believed that so long as blacks generally occupied second-class status in America, they should not support its national Olympic team. After much discussion, however, Smith decided to compete.
Smith and Carlos used symbolism to send a political message to the world. Both men wore black socks, without shoes, to symbolize poverty and racist oppression. Smith clenched his right fist, to symbolize the power and Carlos raised his left as an example of the unity of the black people, respectively. Smith wore a scarf around his neck to signify black pride; Carlos wore beads to honor those who had died in lynchings and other violent acts. Neither man sang the American anthem as it was played. Each wore an OPHR badge, as did silver medalist Peter Newman of Australia, a white athlete who acted in solidarity at their request.
Repercussions for the two were immediate; the crowd at the stadium booed them. Within a few hours, both were removed from the American Olympic team and were expelled from the Games by the International Olympic Committee. On their return to the United States, both Carlos and Smith received death threats and their personal lives became difficult. Carlos had significant difficulty finding employment of any kind, particularly within the athletic community, while Smith eventually played professional football for three years, then went on to become a sports educator and coach in track and field events.
Smith and Carlos saw little financial benefit from their actions. Neither man entered into a book contract or endorsement agreement of any sort, as might have been the case today. Smith stated that his intention was to stand up for black America, however, and there can be little doubt that he achieved that objective to a considerable extent. There is no question that their Black Power salute was the first such demonstration in a world sports forum; it spurred debate about the position of blacks in American society, but whether Smith and Carlos moved or persuaded anyone was also debatable.
That debate may have been settled in October 2005, when Smith and Carlos's alma mater, San Jose State University in California, dedicated a statute on its campus to honor their actions in Mexico City, as a symbol of the struggle in the advancement of black people in America.
McCartney, John T. Black Power Ideologies: An Essay in African-American Political Thought. Philadelphia; Temple University Press, 2006.
Ogban, Jeffrey Ogbonna Green. Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity. Baltimore; Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
British Broadcasting Corporation. "On This Day: October 17." <http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/october/17/newsid_3535000/3535348.stm> (accessed May 19, 2006).