The Black Athlete, 1968 Olympic Protest and correcting incorrect information

The iconic photo is often plastered all over t-shirts, posters, and book covers– and even in some school textbooks. But as one sportswriter argues, the story behind the message is often lost.

It was in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics that Tommie Smith and John Carlos took the medal stand after their wins in the 200-meter dash. The moment that was captured showed the two men, fists in the air in arguably one of the most iconic photos in sports history–even in the history of protests.

Sportswriter Dave Zirin says that “When mentioned at all in U.S. history textbooks, the famous photo appears with almost no context. For example, Pearson/Prentice Hall’s United States History places the photo opposite a short three-paragraph section, ‘Young Leaders Call for Black Power.’ The photo’s caption says simply that’…U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists in protest against discrimination.’”

The media and school curricula, Zirin says, fail to address the story behind the act of resistance.

It was 1968 and not even the sports world wasn’t exempt from the struggle that was taking place at the time.The protest by Smith and Carlos wasn’t a random act. In fact, it was a product of the revolt of the black athlete.

Black athletes formed OPHR, the Olympic Project for Human Rights, and organized a boycott of the 1968 Olympic Games.

The OPHR had four central demands, Zirin said. They included restoring Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight boxing title, removing Avery Brundage as head of the International Olympic Committee, hiring more black coaches, and disinviting South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympics.

“The story of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics deserves more than a visual sound bite in a quickie textbook section on “Black Power.”…When we introduce students to the story of Smith and Carlos’ defiant gesture, we can offer a rich context of activism, courage, and solidarity that breathes life into the study of history—and the long struggle for racial equality,” Zirin wrote.


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