The 1968 Mexico Olympic Games played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement. The cause was given a world stage when American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the Black Power salute atop the podium during the 200 metres medal ceremony.
Tommie Smith was one of the greatest sprinters in the world. Close behind him in the rankings was John Carlos. Both athletes were members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), an organisation that protested against racism in sport. The OPHR urged African American athletes to boycott the games. When it became clear that this boycott would not materialise, Smith and Carlos devised their own protest at the medal ceremony for the 200 metres.
Smith won the gold medal In the 200 metres final and Carlos won the bronze medal. Smith's broke records with a time of 19.8 seconds. The Australian athlete Peter Norman took second prize.
Both Smith and Carlos had removed their shoes and were walking in black socks. Each man wore a black glove: Carlos on his left hand, Smith on his right. Each of these statements served a symbolic purpose. Smith later stated that his gloved right hand represented Black Power in America, while Carlos’ left gloved hand represented unity in Black America. They raised their arms in an arch to represent both black power and unity in the US. They also wore black socks to symbolise black poverty.
Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Olympic Village for their actions and suspended by the American Olympic Committee. They were criticised for politicising an apolitical event.
"The basic principle of the Olympic Games is that politics plays no part whatsoever in them. US athletes violated this universally accepted principle… to advertise domestic political views."
IOC statement after the protest
Many failed to notice that Peter Norman was standing in solidarity with Smith and Carlos - he was also wearing the OPHR’s badge on his tracksuit.
The pair were greeted with mixed reactions on their return to America. Whilst many African Americans treated them as heroes, other people accused them of being unpatriotic troublemakers.
However, their silent protest at the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games left a mark on the world. Polls have suggested that their demonstration is the sixth most memorable TV event of the 20th century.
See also: Tommy Smith
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