Today is the 55th anniversary of one of the most iconic images of the Black freedom struggle: two Black athletes, heads bowed, raising clenched fists atop the victors’ podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Now celebrated as a historic act, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Olympics Black Power salute was widely condemned in its day.
The attending crowd booed the athletes, with celebrated journalist Brent Musburger calling them “black-skinned stormtroopers” (NYTimes). The 1968 Olympics Black Power salute raised questions we’re still grappling with today about racial justice, “politicized” sports, and the meaning of real solidarity.
The 1968 Olympics took place just months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Black Panther Party was at its peak, counting 2,000 members across the country (History). The year before, Black communities revolted in dozens of U.S. cities in the “long, hot summer of 1967” (The Week). Just like during 2020’s George Floyd Rebellion, the questions of racial justice, white supremacy, and revolutionary change were inescapable.
• Support trans-inclusive athletics and share information debunking myths about transgender athletes.
• Support NOlympics LA, the Union de Vecinos, and the Los Angeles Community Action Network fighting to oppose the Olympics gentrification of Los Angeles and Asian Americans’ United’s work to defend Philadelphia’s Chinatown from a basketball arena.
• Support the Players’ Alliance or a local organization fighting for justice on and off the field.
Popular mobilization wasn’t limited to the United States. Two weeks before Smith and Carlos’ Olympics Black Power salute, thousands of Mexican student activists gathered to protest Mexico’s authoritarian, U.S.-sponsored government, chanting, “We don’t want the Olympics, we want revolution” (AOL). Mexican troops opened fire on the crowd and surrounding buildings, killing hundreds in the Tlatelolco Massacre (NPR). The U.S. military provided radios, gunpowder, and mortar fuses to facilitate the slaughter (GWU).
When Black U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter race, with Smith completing it in record-breaking time (NYTimes), they had a choice. They could have appeared as nothing other than patriotic U.S. citizens. Instead, Smith and Carlos wore black socks without shoes to symbolize Black poverty, with Smith wearing a black scarf for Black pride and Carlos wearing beads for Black people murdered by white supremacist violence and slavery. As the National Anthem played, both raised a single, gloved fist. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) forced both to withdraw from subsequent races, evicting them from the Olympic Village for what the Associated Press deemed a “Nazi-like salute” (Famous Pictures).
Ironically, then-IOC Chairman Avery Brundage had led the U.S. team at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which featured Nazi salutes performed by literal Nazis. He publicly defended the Nazi regime, stating, “We can learn much from Germany. We, too, if we wish to preserve our institutions, must stamp out communism. We, too, must take steps to arrest the decline of patriotism” (The Nation). While a Nazi defender so racist that he was dubbed “Slavery Avery” rose to lead the premiere international sporting event, Carlos and Smith’s careers suffered as a result of their courageous act. They were ostracized and threatened, with Time calling them “painfully petty” (Time).
Critics accused Smith and Carlos of “politicizing” the Olympics. But the Olympics, where athletes compete to win medals for their nations that are awarded as their national anthems play, were politicized to begin with (Reuters). The same is true for domestic events like NFL games, where kickoff is preceded by giant American flags, the Star-Spangled Banner, and flyovers by military jets (Bleacher Report). Decades after the Olympics Black Power salute, quarterback Colin Kaepernick was effectively banned from the NFL for supposedly “politicizing” an already politicized sport (Denver Post).
Sporting events start with the National Anthem. They net team owners and corporate sponsors millions of dollars. Right-wing bigots are whipping up a moral panic against transgender athletes across the country. Sports are always political. The question is, what kind of politics do they support: racism, transphobia, and imperialism or collective inclusion and liberation?
The 1968 Olympics protest is also a reminder that those not directly affected by these issues must still choose. Smith and Carlos were joined on the podium by Australian silver medalist Peter Norman. As a white man, Norman did not raise his fist but wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge to support his fellow medalists. Because of this, he returned to Australia a “hated” “pariah,” never to compete in the Olympics again. He sacrificed his career to support Smith and Carlos, who would be pallbearers at his 2006 funeral (CNN).
Today, Los Angeles residents are mobilizing to ensure their communities aren’t displaced by the 2028 Olympics, just like Philadelphia’s Chinatown is fighting gentrification from a proposed basketball arena. Native and Indigenous people are pressuring the end to racist sports names and imagery that reinforce negative stereotypes. Students, parents, and community members across the country are fighting transphobic policies designed to enshrine bigotry in youth sports. Whether players, spectators, or community members, we can all fight for sports to be an avenue for collective change instead of a mechanism for oppression.
• On October 6, 1968, Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a Black Power salute.
• Though criticized for politicizing the Olympics, sports is inherently political to begin with.
• Sports can support transphobia, gentrification, and imperialism or community empowerment and inclusion.