Tommie Smith And John Carlos Made History At The Olympics 52 Years Ago Today

The 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City became one of the most historic Olympic events in history after American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos took to the medal stand and raised a black-gloved fist during the national anthem; an act that is now emulated at professional sports games when players take a knee during the anthem in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

It was 52 years ago today – Friday, October 16th – when Smith won the gold and set a world record of 19.83 seconds in the 200-meter dash. Carlos won bronze for the same event and Australian sprinter Peter Norman joined them on the stand to accept the silver medal. 

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Everyone has seen the iconic image of Smith and Carlos raising their fist in the Black Power salute on the stand, however, at the time the two likely had no idea the type of precedent they would be setting for athletes everywhere, fighting the same fight they were some 50 years ago. 

During the 1968 Olympic Games America was at the height of its initial civil rights movement. Black members of the US track team, which has continuously been viewed as one of the fastest teams ever assembled, threatened to boycott the Olympic games at the time to protest the racist treatment of Black People in America; something that members of the NBA also did this year during the playoff season. 

In 1968, however, the idea of a boycott from some of the countries biggest and best athletes was unheard of, causing the media to spiral. The boycott never took full effect, as many of the Black athletes argued that they had to work ten times harder anyway to get a spot in the Games, and wanted to take full advantage of that opportunity that they’ve trained so hard for. So instead, their protests just took different forms at the games themselves. 

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On the stand, Smith, Carlos, and Norman all wore patches on their jackets for the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). OPHR was an organization founded in 1967 to raise awareness and expose the mistreatment of Black athletes in America. The OPHR’s main claim was that America and the media didn’t actually care about the Black individuals who were making strides in the sports industry, and instead just wanted to “prop up” athletes like Jackie Robinson and Kenny Washington to show that America has made racial progress to the outside world. 

At the time, the OPHR’s main goals and demands included restoring Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight boxing title – after he was stripped of it for publicly opposing the Vietnam war -, hire more Black coaches, remove Avery Brundage as the head of the International Olympic Committee — he was known for his history of racism, sexism and Antisemitism — and to exclude South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympic Games in solidarity with Black people against the apartheid.

While Norman may have opted not to raise his fist, the fact that he was a white athlete wearing an OPHR patch was enough to negatively impact his career down the line. The black glove worn by Smith on his right hand was meant to represent the power of Black America while the glove on Carlos’ left hand symbolized Black unity. Smith also wore a scarf around his neck to represent Black Pride while Carlos wore beads around his neck to represent the countless Black lives lost due to lynchings in America. Carlos and Smith also went up to the stand shoe-less to represent poverty in the Black community in America and Carlos kept his jacket unzipped – a violation of Olympic etiquette – as a symbol of solidarity with the working class. 

This iconic image has been used countless times within the past five decades, and continues to be relevant today as America is in the midst of another movement fighting for the same thing Smith and Carlos were fighting for; racial equality and justice for Black people in America.