Civil Wrongs

Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman at the 1968 Olympic Games

On October 17, 1968, Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos were forced to return their awards because they had raised their fists in a ‘black-power’ salute in support of the Black Panther movement during the medal ceremony. They were joined in the protest by Australian silver medalist Peter Norman and all wore human rights badges on their jackets. The photograph of the ceremony is one of the most familiar and enduring images of a turbulent era in American history. The event is still regarded as one of the most overtly political statements in the history of the modern Olympic Games.

Their medal-ceremony protest was relatively spontaneous — the pair decided what they’d do while they waited in the athletes’ lounge for the ceremony to begin – but the sprinters had been active in the civil rights movement long before they arrived in Mexico City. They wore no shoes, to symbolize the poverty that plagued so many black Americans. Carlos wore a necklace of black beads, he said, "For those individuals that were lynched or killed that no one said a prayer for, that were hung tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage."

People in the crowd booed and cursed at the athletes. The IOC convened the next day and determined that Smith and Carlos would have to forfeit their medals and leave the Olympic Village – and Mexico – immediately.

Even after the athletes had been disciplined, the backlash continued. Newspapers compared the men to Nazis — Brett Musburger, a sports caster for ABC, called them "black-skinned storm troopers." Given this, the actual order sending the men home was, in itself, interesting given that it came from Avery Brundage, the same person who, as head of the US Olympic Commission in 1936, had ensured American athletes’ complicity in the Nazi salute in Berlin. Time magazine called their act "nasty" and "ugly." His "un-American activities" got Smith discharged from the Army, and someone threw a rock through a plate-glass window at his baby’s crib. The two men received death threats for years, both struggled to make a living and neither ever ran for their country again.

Times have changed and, more recently, public opinion has begun to shift with many people now celebrating the sprinters’ courageous act. In 2005, San José State University unveiled a 20-foot-tall statue honouring the two men and Smith and Carlos received an Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2008 Excellence in Sports Yearly Award honouring their action.

In a 2011 speech to the University of Guelph, Akaash Maharaj, a member of the Canadian Olympic Committee and head of Canada’s Olympic Equestrian team, said, "In that moment, Tommie Smith, Peter Norman, and John Carlos became the living embodiments of Olympic idealism. Ever since, they have been inspirations to generations of athletes who can only aspire to their example of putting principle before personal interest."

Ray Henshaw