American runner Tommie Smith won the gold medal in the 200 meter dash at the 1968 Olympic games with a record 19.83 seconds. Australia's Peter Norman came in second at 20.06 seconds and the US's John Carlos clocked in at 20.10 seconds, rounding out the medal winners. As the three runners walked to the podium to receive their medals, Smith and Carlos wore only black socks to symbolize widespread poverty in the African-American community. Carlos also wore a necklace of beads representing African-Americans who were lynched and killed in the United States. Once the three athletes reached the podium and the national anthem began, Smith and Carlos raised their fists instead of covering their hearts. Norman, a critic of Australia's discriminatory policies, joined them in protest by wearing a human rights badge on his uniform.
This was an unprecedented moment in modern Olympics history. The three runners made an overtly political statement that criticized major world powers. The Games were held only months after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and a few years after Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous March on Washington. The salute was a sign of resistance to white oppression around the world, similar to other famous incidents such as Rosa Parks' refusal to sit at the back of a bus, the Greensboro sit-ins, and Malcolm X's revolutionary speeches.
This historic moment was orchestrated by the Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organization established by sociologist Harry Edwards. It aimed to highlight racial segregation in the United States and South Africa as the Civil Rights Movement came to a head. The black power salute, or "human rights salute" as Tommie Smith called it in his autobiography, was heavily condemned by numerous International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials and US-based news sources, including TIME magazine. IOC President, Avery Brundage, supported the claim that the salute was a "deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit" even though he did not object to Nazi salutes at the 1936 Berlin games.
The backlash against the black power salute was mainly driven by the belief that the Olympics are an apolitical event. However, when states come together there will inevitably be a political element, especially in times of international tension. This does not mean that the games have to exacerbate that tension. As was discussed last week, the Games can be a forum for cooperation and understanding, but pretending the event isn't a politicized display is disingenuous. Just as Smith, Norman, and Carlos displayed tremendous courage thirty-four years ago, so must advocates still fighting for equality today.