October 16 marks the 50th anniversary of the historic Black Power protest at the 1968 Olympics 200m medal ceremony by African American athletes Tommie Smith (centre) and John Carlos (right), the gold and bronze medalists. Peter Norman (left), the silver medalist from Australia and an opponent of the White Australia policy, displayed the badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). This was – and is – a powerful example of defiance in the face of racist oppression, in particular, and for human rights for all, in general.
Smith and Carlos took their places on the podium in stocking feet and wearing civil rights badges. As the Star Spangled Banner was played, they each lowered their heads and in an act of protest and solidarity raised a black-gloved fist in the Black Power salute. They were expelled from the Olympic Village, suspended from the U.S. Olympic team, and banned from the Olympics for life.
What is overlooked is that the swift and brutal attack on the athletes was spearheaded by American financier Avery Brundage, head of the IOC from 1952 to 1972, who bellowed against “politics in sport.” Brundage first gained a seat on the IOC after the sitting US representative was expelled for urging athletes to boycott the Berlin games in 1936. This is the only time any member of the IOC had been expelled. The 1936 Olympics saw the Nazification of sport in Germany, and the use of the Olympics to promote fascism, chauvinism and revanchism. In reality, Brundage was pro-Nazi, a virulent anti-Communist and anti-Semite who believed that there was a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” that existed to keep the United States out of competing in the Berlin Olympics. Brundage could see no evil whether it was the Berlin Olympics, where he raised no objection to the use of the Nazi salute, or apartheid in South Africa or Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and the admission of “all-white” athletes from apartheid regimes.
The stand of the three Olympian athletes reverberated internationally. The photograph of the protest of the athletes has become one of the most recognized images in the world, after that of the first moon landing.
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