Carlos smith norman at 1968 olympics

The International Olympic Committee doesn’t like it when its athletes get political. This year, the IOC published guidelines that ban athletes in the 2021 Olympic Games from taking a knee, raising a fist or any other action that shows solidarity with antiracism movements.

The IOC is surely worried over a replay of the 1968 Olympic Games, in Mexico City, when U.S. athletes (both San Jose State alums) Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in support of racial equality while standing on the podium after the Men’s 200-meter final. Silver medalist Peter Norman, also on the podium, supported Smith and Carlos and their ideals.

If you’re not familiar with this event—considered one of the most iconic moments in Olympic history—watch the 2008 documentary Salute. It was made in Australia but all three of the participants are on screen for about the same amount of time. It is absolutely incredible, memorable, and it shows how these three, brought together by chance, did one of the greatest things any athletes have ever done.

A quick summary: Smith won the 200-meter final in a then-world-record time of 19.83 seconds. Norman and Carlos finished second and third with only a four hundredths of a second between them.

When they stood on the podium to receive their medals, both Smith and Carlos raised a black-gloved fist while the “Star Spangled Banner” played. They were shoeless and wore black socks to represent black poverty. Smith’s black scarf represented black pride. All three wore badges from the Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organization that fought against racial segregation and racism in sports.

The backlash against Smith and Carlos was swift and vicious. Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Games. The U.S. sports industry and the media criticized the two Americans so harshly, Kaepernick’s experience pales in comparison. Norman was treated just as viciously, if not more so, in his home country of Australia. Yet none of them have any regrets.

Watch the documentary to find out how the act of protest affected all three athletes’ lives and careers and why none of them regret their decisions.

Remembering the Games

I remember the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. I was in college at the time, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The statement Smith and Carlos made on the podium stays etched in my brain to this day.

It was a tumultuous time. I got drafted and served two years although I didn’t go to Vietnam. After the Army I finished college and then went to law school. During that entire time and through the early ‘70s, I was angry with the system and felt politically empowered. I recognized how important the black revolution was—and is. The draft did not discriminate. We were all in it together. Sound familiar?

More than half a century later, we’re still raising our fists and shouting Black Lives Matter. Like many people in Oakland, I’m tired of institutional racism and as many have said, this time it feels different. We may actually make strides.

Our office, which represents people suffering devastating injuries, stands for racial equality. It’s a given we represent anyone that needs our help, regardless of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

Watch Salute, read articles about Smith and Carlos’s silent protest, or read Silent Gesture: the Autobiography of Tommie Smith and/or The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World. What connections do you see between the 1968 Olympics protest and today’s protests stemming from George Floyd’s murder?

Photo: Angelo Cozzi (Mondadori Publishers) / Public domain