On Oct. 16, 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos ascended the victor’s stand at the Mexico City Olympics. After receiving their medals for the 200-meter final — Smith a gold, Carlos the bronze — the men bowed their heads as the U.S. national anthem played and thrust a gloved hand into the air in a black power salute.
That symbol of defiance and protest ushered in an era of athletic activism that melded sports with the mushrooming civil rights and women’s movements. The photo of Smith and Carlos’ statement has become one of the most famous in all of athletics, and even though what the duo did was highly controversial at the time, the Mexico City demonstration has come to represent the exact moment when sport became politicized. (Smith and Carlos’ protest followed massive demonstrations by Mexican students opposed to the games that culminated in an Oct. 2, 1968, massacre of demonstrators by Mexican police and security forces.)
“1968 is seen as a pinnacle, when this notion of sports and social change came about,” said Eli Wolff of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sports in Society, which recently sponsored a two-day conference on “Olympism and Human Rights.”
Bruce Kidd, dean of the faculty of physical education and health at the University of Toronto, which is sponsoring a three-day conference on “40 Years of Sport and Social Change” beginning May 20, emphasizes that Smith and Carlos’ protest wasn’t the first time the games had been used for political purposes — the 1936 Berlin Olympics and attempts to ban participation by apartheid South Africa proceeded the 1968 demonstration — but, he said, “as a movement with continuity and coordination with links to the academy, 1968 is a great place to start. The Olympic Project for Human Rights (a group formed to protest racism in sports that influenced Smith and Carlos) linked to the civil rights movement and the human rights movement.”
All of which has particular relevance in 2008, thanks to the controversy surrounding the Beijing Olympics. Because of China’s tattered human rights record, its dealings with Tibet and its alleged support of a genocidal regime in the Sudan, this has become the most politicized games since 1984, when the Soviet Union withdrew from the L.A. games as payback for the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. But 2008 is not 1968 — the conditions under which elite athletes perform have changed significantly, as have the ways in which they view the world.
In 1968, said Harry Edwards, an emeritus professor of sociology at University of California, Berkeley, who founded the OPHR, “there was a broad scale social movement which rationalized activism among athletes. Where you have a civil rights movement, student movement, anti-war movement and women’s movement, you have an ideological basic upon which you can justify actions around a systemic discontent. Today, you don’t have these movements; not even an anti-war movement around Iraq.”
Besides, Kidd added, a lot of the conditions 1960s athletes were protesting have been ameliorated to a considerable degree. “The athletic leadership and the rank and file were more active in the ’60s and early ’70s, in part because of the conditions they faced,” he said. “The overt racism, the tremendous sexism in policy, program and funding, the lack of concern for athletic health and safety. Today, the overt racism has been driven underground. In terms of athletes’ rights, there are well-established appeal procedures (which means Smith and Carlos would probably not be expelled from the games, as they were in 1968). So athletes are not as militant (today) because in the sports world many of the conditions have changed, and this is a much more conservative time.”
It’s also a more corporate time, and that affects how high-profile athletes view the world and its problems. “Athletes today are so commodified,” Edwards said, “and so media and corporate focused. They are concerned about the shoe deal, the next contract. The service dimension of it is oftentimes viewed as a corporate kind of responsibility. They go with the prevailing ethic of the times, which is corporate.”
Wolff claims that even in the best of times, “activism historically has not been accepted” in the athletic community, and that “there are not a lot of current athletes that are involved publicly. Once they retire, they’re more involved with public activism.”
If they are active, however, the issues athletes promote differ significantly from the Smith-Carlos days. Wolff said they fall into three categories: access for minority populations to get into sport; big-ticket issues like the environment, voting rights or AIDS; community service, like working on opening playgrounds or gyms in the neighborhood the athlete grew up in.
“One type is not necessarily better than another; it’s just different forms,” Wolff said. “But there are a greater number of athletes taking a service-based approach, like going into a soup kitchen. Activism is defined very broadly.”
Broadly enough to protest at the Beijing games, which begin Aug. 8? Fear of activism has already caused the International Olympic Committee and several national Olympic governing bodies (New Zealand and Australia being two examples) to try to put restrictions on athletes’ free speech. The IOC, in particular, has invoked Rule 51 of the Olympic Charter, which states, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” The rule also bans armbands, ribbons, buttons or any other visible signs of “publicity or propaganda” on athletes’ and officials’ clothing and equipment.
That means it’s OK to protest offsite, where the Chinese government, not known for its sympathy toward free speech, could make arrests and possibly over-react. As of now, the situation “is very fluid,” Kidd said. “Whether there will be efforts to protest will be determined by the geopolitics about how the Europeans feel about the political base in their own countries. And the other factor is how the IOC and the Olympic committees allow their people to express themselves in an open manner.”
Edwards believes that “if we learned nothing at all from the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, it is that to the extent you award the games to a nation which has a substantial global footprint, you invite a broad spectrum of political risks.” The old activist in
Edwards feels “some athletes will attempt to make some statement. And at the end of the day, (the Chinese) could crack down to control the situation. Then someone with a cell phone will take pictures, and they will go out internationally.”
But Wolff, who feels it’s “possible” some athletes will be engaging in personal, uncoordinated protests, doesn’t feel any of it will be “major” in nature. Although, he added, “I don’t think it’s going to totally blow over. I think we will be seeing a lot of interesting things taking place. And (a protest) doesn’t have to be just about Beijing; it could be about sport and social change.”
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