Editor's Pick

30 September, 2018

ON 16 OCTOBER 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos create one of the most iconic images of the civil-rights movement by raising their fists on the medal podium at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Smith and Carlos finished first and third respectively in the 200-metre sprint, and made the gesture to support the struggle raging in the United States against racial discrimination.

As they made their way to the medal ceremony with the silver medallist, Peter Norman of Australia, the two athletes wore black socks to symbolise the poverty that plagued so many African Americans. Carlos wore a necklace of black beads to honour those who had been lynched or thrown off slave ships. Smith wore a black scarf. All three, including Norman, wore badges issued by the Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organisation seeking to end racism in sport. As the American national anthem began playing, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists. Initially stunned into silence, the crowd booed them as they left the podium.

The International Olympic Committee stripped Smith and Carlos of their medals and expelled them from the Olympic Village. When they returned home, the two were heavily criticised, called “black-skinned storm troopers,” and threatened with death. Smith was discharged from the US Army. They never participated in an international sporting event again. Norman also became an outcast in Australia, and was barred from participating in the 1972 Olympics despite having cleared the qualification time 13 times.

Public opinion about the protest has changed in recent years, with the IOC now celebrating the protest on its website. Nevertheless, as the ostracism 50 years later of the American football star Colin Kaepernick—who in 2016 took a knee during the national anthem to protest police killings of African Americans—demonstrates, protesting racism during sporting events remains a fraught exercise.