Black power show in Olympics


US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos electrified the 200m field at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

The former won gold in a world record time and the latter claimed a bronze medal behind Australian Peter Norman.

But the action of Smith and Carlos during the medal ceremony upstaged their achievements on the track by some distance.

It was the duo’s Black Power salute, frozen in an iconic photo featuring all the three medallists on the podium, which captivated the world.

The African-Americans raised their clenched fists, wrapped in black gloves, and bowed their heads when the US national anthem was played. Smith and Carlos protested the treatment of blacks in their home country, at the altar of the Olympic Games.

They had not worn shoes to highlight the poverty among the black community and their clinched fists symbolised black power. Smith wore a black scarf and Carlos a black necklace.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) headed by the irascible American Avery Brundage and the United States Olympic Committee were furious. And their retribution was swift and ruthless.

The Mexican visas of Smith and Carlos were taken back and the duo was banished from the Olympic village within 48 hours. The IOC described the salute “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.”

Change was the central theme in many parts of the world in the swinging 60s. The Mexico Olympics was held during a period of great churning in American politics.

The civil rights movement was at its peak. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali had been at the forefront of black protests in their own ways. The first two were assassinated and the third lost his boxing licence.

Harry Edwards, who held a doctorate in sociology, founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) at San Jose State University where both Smith and Carlos had been students.

Edwards urged black athletes to boycott the Mexico Olympics to register their opposition to racial discrimination in the US. Finally, the OPHR gave up its boycott idea but protests at the Games remained on the agenda. The silent action of Smith and Carlos at Mexico spoke eloquently for all the blacks in their country.

The American press castigated the ‘rebels’ for blending politics with sports. Smith and Carlos never ran for the US again as the press and public hounding continued for a long time. Smith had been fired from his car-washing job even before the Olympics for his involvement with the OPHR.

Both received death threats from various quarters. Smith lost his mother to a heart attack, which he believed resulted from the fallout of the Black Power salute, and his marriage ended in a divorce.

Carlos’s wife took her life 10 years later. The athlete alleged in his biography that the FBI sowed the seeds of marital discord by sending his wife photos featuring him with other women.

America’s views on the Black Power salute softened after Jimmy Carter caused the biggest stir in the Olympic history by boycotting the 1980 Games. Carter didn’t stop with mixing politics and sports; he made them conjoined twins.

Sportspersons have always played an important role in effecting sociological changes in the 20th century America.

The non-violent method adopted by Smith and Carlos even got the approval of Norman, a white Australian.

To express solidarity with the US duo, Norman also wore a badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Smith later said that “the Australian didn’t raise his fist, but he did lend a hand.” Smith and Carlos were pallbearers when Norman died in 2006.

The acceptance of Smith and Carlos in the American society after years of ostracism got a seal of approval when their statues were unveiled at the San Jose State University campus in 2005. The plaque read: “They stood for justice, dignity, equality and peace. Hereby the university and associated students commemorate their legacy.”

Boxing champion johnson was the first hero

USA has always endured a tempestuous relationship with top black athletes since the turn of the 20th century.

Hatred and prejudice dictated white people’s thinking in the beginning. It took longer than one would have expected for the US to change its attitude towards African-American stars.

Here is lowdown on top African-American champions of the 20th century.

Jack Johnson: He was the first black heavyweight champion in boxing. Johnson was lethal inside the ring and brash off it.

He pummelled white boxers and cavorted with white women, both recipes for disasters at a time when lynching of blacks was rampant.

Johnson didn’t conform to the stereotype of an African-American. He knew he was special and acted accordingly.

Johnson hammered James Jeffries — touted as the great white hope — in the Fight of the Century on July 4 (of all days) in 1910. His win triggered riots across the country. Little wonder Johnson is Muhammad Ali’s hero.

Joe Louis: The Brown Bomber was one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time. His two bouts against German Max Schmeling rallied America behind him.

He lost the first in 1936 and won the second two years later. Schmeling’s nationality — rather than USA’s acceptance of a black champion — turned America in favour of Louis. A pacifist by nature, Louis didn’t do anything that would hurt the sentiments of the majority in the US.

Jesse Owens: It was easier for the star of the 1936 Berlin Olympics to gain acceptance in the Nazi Germany than in his home country.

Owens didn’t have the forceful personality of Jackson to voice his protest vociferously but there was no doubt that he was bitter until his death.

Jackie Robinson: He became the first black to play in the Major League Baseball in 1947. Brooklyn Dodgers’ decision to sign Robinson is a seminal moment in the history of American sports.

The path-breaking move even transcended the field of play as doors started opening for blacks in other spheres.

Muhammad Ali: Nobody fought the establishment entrenched in prejudice like the incomparable Ali did in the 60s and 70s.

The changing national mood towards the treatment of blacks aided Ali’s push for equality. The charismatic boxer’s opposition to the Vietnam War would go down as the greatest fight of his resplendent career.

Michael Jordan: The dynamics was different in the 80s and 90s as commercialism became the new mantra in sports.

Racism wasn’t as rife as it was at the start of the century. Nothing summed up the change better than the image of basketball legend Jordan, arguably the greatest of all black stars, hiding the logo of a rival brand (he had always been Nike’s poster boy) on his jersey with an American flag during the victory ceremony at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

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