Local & State Voices

Courage, ‘silent gesture' at Olympics

Next Wednesday, 1968 Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos will receive the equivalent of the sports industry Oscars, an ESPY award from ESPN.

They'll be joined in the special awards category by injured Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett and Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton. Raleigh's Hamilton, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, will get the Best Comeback Award. We editorialized about him earlier this week. Everett will get the Jimmy V Award (named for N.C. State Coach Jim Valvano, who died of cancer) for Perseverance.

But most eyes will be on Tommie Smith and John Carlos. (The ESPYs will be televised on ESPN July 20). They will receive the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, which honors personal courage. They'll join such past recipients and trailblazers as Muhammad Ali and tennis great Billie Jean King.

Fist up for human rights

Smith and Carlos won gold and bronze medals for the United States in the 200-meter race at the Mexico City Olympics. They saw a chance to make a quiet statement about civil rights and human rights. So, during the medals ceremony they each raised one black-gloved fist in the air, stood shoeless wearing black socks and bowed their heads.

The next day they were expelled from the Olympic Village and sent home. Once they got home, they were vilified and derided, faced death threats and for several years had difficulty finding work. Smith said his mother died of a heart attack after receiving manure and dead rats in the mail. Carlos said his wife committed suicide because of the stress.

Their act of courage, even four decades later, still doesn't sit well with some Americans. They see a “black power salute” that was unpatriotic and designed to embarrass America.

The two saw things differently.

In a 1993 interview, Smith said he “never felt such a rush of pride” as he did at that moment. “Even hearing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner' was pride, even though it didn't totally represent me. But it was the anthem which represented the country I represented, can you see that? They say we demeaned the flag. … No way. That's my flag … that's the American flag and I'm an American.”

Carlos noted several years later: “It wasn't about black or white. It was just about humanity, faith in God and faith in making it a better world.”

Carlos and Smith weren't the only athletes protesting during the games, though few would know that from the press coverage. Gold-medal long jumper Bob Beamon wore symbolic black socks on his second jump. The gold-medal winning U.S. men's 4x100 meter relay team wore black berets and raised their fists during their medal ceremony. Even Peter Norman, the Australian runner who took the silver medal during the 200, stood with Carlos and Smith in protest by wearing – as they did – an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge.

Juxtaposed against the Beijing Olympics, which start August 8, the honor for Smith and Carlos has resonance. Protests of China's human rights record dogged the Olympic torch relay earlier this year. China is going to some lengths to avoid protests in Beijing – allowing no late night and outside entertainment areas. Beijing's 15 million residents are also being “urged” to stay home and watch it on television.

Beijing echoes 1968

Trying to shut down citizen protests also echoes Mexico City. Few Americans were aware of the student and worker demonstrations that were roiling Mexico at that time. Throngs took to the streets, and just 10 days before the games began more than 300 civilians were killed and thousands wounded when soldiers surrounded them and opened fire. Officials said the protesters fired first. It took more than 30 years for the truth to emerge, but declassified documents show that Mexico carried out a plan to end the demonstrations before the games. That plan resulted in the deaths.

The Olympic atmosphere in 1968 was so tinged with violence that Smith later said he believed if he won, “I wouldn't live to see my gold medal.”

Carlos and Smith had careers years later in coaching and education. Despite their woes, they've said they didn't regret their Olympics action.

Both said they felt obligated to raise awareness about injustice. Smith said theirs was the “silent gesture heard round the world.” The ESPY honor illustrates it's still being heard.