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This Day in History - 10.16.2011

Silent Protest Rocks the Olympic Games

By Melissa Paris

On this day in history, October 16, the sports world was changed forever. The 1968 Summer Olympics are perhaps the most infamous in the history of the Games. Not because they were the only games ever held in Latin America, or the first to be held in a Spanish speaking country, but because the ’68 games bore witness to the bold actions of athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

Winners of the gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter dash, Smith and Carlos brought a social protest to the podium, each standing with their heads dipped toward the ground and a single gloved fist clenched in the air. Their actions were intended to show support and solidarity with the African American community at home, which was still involved in the struggle for equal treatment under the law. The athletes accepted their medals without shoes, their socked feet making a statement about the impoverishment facing African Americans. Their jackets were left unzipped as a salute to America’s blue-collar workers, and Carlos sported a long beaded necklace, which he stated was “for those individuals who were lynched or killed and that no-one said a prayer for. . . . It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage" (Lucas 2007).

As the athletes left the podium they faced a bombardment of boos and jeers. This was just the beginning of the negative consequences that they would experience. Immediately after the ceremony, a spokeswoman for the Olympic organization released a statement classifying the protest as “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit” (BBC). Smith and Carlos were subsequently expelled from the Olympic Village and once home faced harsh public criticism and even death threats.

The silent demonstration held by the athletes lasted only the duration of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” yet it was arguably one of the most visible and effective homages to the Civil Rights movement ever staged. There was no more conspicuous venue than the Olympic Games, and the short-lived protest produced one of the most memorable images of the civil rights era. Today, Tommie Smith and John Carlos are widely revered for their heroic deed and have secured a place in the annals of social protest.