The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City was the setting of one of the most dramatic symbolic protests in Olympics history. Set during the turbulent 1960s, within the backdrop of the civil rights, feminism, and anti-war movements in the United States, U.S. track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, winners of the Gold and Bronze medal in the 200M, used the Olympic podium in symbolic protest against structural social inequality in the U.S. and abroad (Bass, 2002). Their raised fists and shoeless feet represented the unfinished business of the civil rights movement and defied the dominant narrative of U.S. democracy, highlighting the continued need for structural change in the social and economic institutions of the United States. As a result, there was an immediate backlash as powerful forces discredited the legitimacy and relevance of the act (Zirin, 2008). While Smith and Carlos are largely revered in the popular media discourse today (Brown, 2012) for their courage and prominence in the civil rights movement, their symbolic act had serious economic and social consequences for the athletes (Small & Zirin, 2008). Moreover, structural inequality remains a pervasive social issue in the United States. Examination of the social, political, economic, and cultural circumstances, leading up to and following the protest have explanatory power to address important questions about the use of the Olympic media event as a force for social change. What was the role of media as a force for change? What forces shaped the symbolic moment and how do those forces apply today? Finally, do the Olympics remain a platform for change by activist athletes? Examining these questions using a critical cultural lens, this author contends that while the Olympics remain an attractive media platform for protest, the consequences of protest by activist athletes are higher than ever, with strong inducements to assure that the Olympic stage is preserved for state and commercial actors and their dominant narratives.
The now-famous black power salute on the Olympic podium was not a spontaneous event, but rather a carefully planned and orchestrated protest with roots in the Black Freedom movement, heavily influenced by civil rights leaders and sociologist Harry Edwards, a professor at San Jose State University (Bass, 2002; Small & Zirin, 2008). Both Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos were track stars at San Jose State University, where they became radicalized by Harry Edwards and became involved in black militant groups (Small & Zirin, 2008). Influenced heavily by Muhammad Ali’s use of sport as a platform for civil rights, chance remarks by Tommie Smith may have precipitated events by postulating the possibility of an Olympic boycott by black athletes during an interview at the World University Games in Tokyo (BBC, 2012). This pseudo-event caused significant media controversy that played out over subsequent months, leading to the formation of Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organized effort advocating the boycott of the 1968 by U.S. black athletes (Bass, 2002).
The proposed boycott received considerable media attention, usually expressed in terms of national outrage, drawing the criticism and ire of Avery Brundage, head of the International Olympic committee (Hartmann, 1996). In contrast, the proposed boycott received the endorsement and support of notable blacks athletes and civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., Lew Alcindor, Louie Lomax, Jacky Robinson, Stokely Carmichael, and Muhammad Ali (Bass, 2002; Earp, 2011; Hartmann, 1996). With the support of the civil rights movement, the OPHR published a list of demands that included the restoration of Muhammad Ali’s boxing title, the removal of Brundage as head of the IOC, the exclusion of apartheid countries from the 1968 Olympics, desegregation of the New York City Athletic Club, and the placement of black coaches and administrators onto the U.S. Olympic Committee (Hartmann, 1996). While the boycott and the subsequent demands attracted a great deal of media coverage and public outcry, the proposed boycott failed to receive the needed support from African American Olympic athletes and never materialized (Bass, 2002). The reason that loomed largest “was that athletes who had trained their whole lives for their Olympic moment quite understandably didn’t want to give it up” (Zirin, 2008) However, the stage had been set for the Olympic protest.
On October 16, 1968, Tommie Smith won Olympic gold in the 200M sprint and John Carlos won the bronze. The athletes stepped up to the podium, in front of a global audience of nearly 400 million people wearing “black stockings but no shoes, a black glove on one hand, and Smith had a black scarf around his neck…as the Star-Spangled Banner began, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and simultaneously raised a black-gloved fist” (Bass, 2002, p. 240). The pair received immediate condemnation from the crowd as the audience began to boo and hiss (Bass, 2002). During an interview with Howard Cosell (1968), Smith would later comment on the symbology of the moment, explaining:
The right glove that I wore on my right hand signified the power within black America. The left glove my teammate John Carlos wore on his left hand made an arc with my right hand and his left hand also to signify black unity. The scarf that was worn around my neck signified blackness. John Carlos and me wore socks, black socks, without shoes, to also signify our poverty.
Within two days, the IOC expelled the two athletes from the Olympic village and banned them from further Olympic competition.
Upon return to the United States, the athletes were greeted as heroes by San Jose State University and members of the black militant movement, but were largely condemned by the national press, and specifically sports journalists (Hartmann, 1996). For example, Brent Musburger, a sports columnist for the Chicago American wrote (Zirin, 2008):
One gets a little tired of having the United States run down by athletes who are enjoying themselves at the expense of their country. Protesting and working constructively against racism in the United States is one thing, but airing one’s dirty clothing before the entire world during a fun-and-games tournament was no more than a juvenile gesture by a couple of athletes who should have known better. (p. 1)
Moreover, Musburger described the pair as “a couple of dark-skinned stormtroopers” (Zirin, 2008, p. 1). The near universal condemnation of the protest had severe social and economic repercussions for the athletes, as former job offers and career prospects evaporated (Small & Zirin, 2008). According to Small and Zirin (2008), “Their athletic careers were ruined. For years, they received death threats and were treated like traitors to their country. They couldn’t find good jobs” (p. 1). As a result of their protest, Smith and Carlos were to lead their lives without the cultural or economic capital typified by most successful Olympic athletes.
The Possibilities of the Olympic Stage
The Olympics have long been an attractive venue for political statements and protests since the first modern Olympics were held in Athens (Cotrell & Nelson, 2010). The venues attractiveness stems from of the high-profile nature of the global event, the events accessibility, the availability of transnational allies or supporters, and the “symbolic meaning that facilitates collective claim-making and widens political opportunity” (Cotrell & Nelson, 2010, p. 5). As such, the Olympics of 1968 must have been a near irresistible opportunity for actors in the civil rights movement. In particular, the list of OPHR demands suggests the activist organization was well aware of the opportunity, given their linkage of the U.S. civil rights movement and international apartheid. Moreover, OPHR was likely well aware of the power of the Olympic stage, given lessons learned from the early civil rights movement in the South.
Indeed, the early civil rights movement was a brilliantly executed media campaign whose beginning coincided with the full penetration of network television and the rise of television news broadcasting (Bodroghkozy, 2008). Television beamed dramatic images of racial injustice and civil unrest directly into the living rooms of most Americans, who hitherto had remained unaffected by the civil rights movement. The non-violent direct action March from Selma to Montgomery serves as a case in point. The event, labeled ‘Bloody Sunday’, with images of peaceful protesters being run down by armed troopers on horseback, spurred hundreds of individuals to head to Selma and prompted quick reaction by legislators (Lee, 2002). Furthermore, the situation caused one network’s Washington news chief to remark, “Negroes are the architects, bricklayers, carpenters, and welders of this revolution. Television is their chosen instrument” (Monroe, 1967, p. 83). In this sense, “television appears to put all aspects of social experience on show to all, without distinction” (McQuail, 2010, p. 125). Undoubtedly, the new mass medium appeared to hold considerable power to raise awareness of the plight of African Americans and spur change, a lesson not lost on OPHR.
Forces Shaping the Symbolic Salute
It is likely the OPHR was aware not only of the global audience reach of the Olympics, but also of the event’s symbolic power in the ideology of liberal democracy. According the Olympic Charter, “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity” (International Olympic Committee, 2011, p. 10). Despite the IOC charter, the IOC condemned the OPHR’s proposed boycott, arguing that there was no place for politics in the Olympics (Zirin, 2008). Furthermore, the IOC used various tactics to shut down the boycott and silence OPHR, including sending Jesse Owens to attempt to discredit the organization. (Zirin, 2008). Not only was the IOC a powerful organization, but in the eyes of the movement, a hypocritical organization.
In addition, the Olympics were an important symbolic event for the United States and African American athletes were an equally important part of the U.S. Olympic narrative (Earp, 2011). However, Harry Edwards, OPHR’s leader, and both Smith and Carlos determined to undermine the hypocrisy of African American athletes being used to support a narrative that collided with their lived experience (Earp, 2011). Moreover, the OPHR’s rejection of American Dream rhetoric was important in an international context, given 1968 was considered the height of the Cold War. While both Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson were popular culture examples of the dominant narrative, OPHR challenged the narrative in their founding statement (Zirin, 2008):
We must no longer allow this country to use … a few “Negroes” to point out to the world how much progress she has made in solving her racial problems when the oppression of Afro-Americans is greater than it ever was. We must no longer allow the Sports World to pat itself on the back as a citadel of racial justice when the racial injustices of the sports industry are infamously legendary. (p. 1)
It is therefore, little surprise, that the protest took symbolic shape.
Bass (2002) described the protest in terms of symbolic violence, an action that “dislocated the normative staging of the nation as well as the sprinters’ own place as national subjects….it quickly became a powerful symbol that both inspired and intimidated and simultaneously acknowledged the lack of power of many more (p. 4). However, the protest was made up of both powerful symbols, but brilliant staging. For example, MacAloon (1982) notes that the Olympics hold no place to represent “subnational group identities of race, ethnicity, or ideology that are for many, the core of their beings” (MacAloon, 1982, p. 108). It was into this gap, that Smith and Carlos were able to insert powerful cultural symbols, the raised fist juxtaposed over the playing of the ideological normative Star-Spangled Banner, forcing a global audience to consider the condition of U.S. African Americans for the entire length of the song. It is little wonder the protest created such a backlash and yet, remains in collective consciousness more than forty-four years later.
Implications for Today
Despite the Olympics being notoriously political, the Olympic charter remains opposed to demonstration, ruling, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted” (International Olympic Committee, 2011). Of course, the IOC’s stance is not surprising given the growing political and economic importance of the Olympic games. As a case in point, the 2012 London Olympics had the largest global viewing audience for any event on record (CNN, 2012). More importantly, the bulk of the IOC’s considerable revenue comes from the license of media rights; NBC for example, paid more than $1.2 billion for the exclusive right to broadcast the London Olympics in the U.S. market (Associated Press, 2008). Cotrell and Nelson (2010) suggest that the scope and size of the modern Olympics has much to do with the IOC’s steadfast resistance to the politicization of the Olympics, noting:
Protecting the brand, some contend, is less about promoting the Olympic spirit and more about simply making money. From this perspective, the contemporary IOC acts as a corporate entity that is, in fact, very political — engaging in precisely the type of behavior that the Charter prohibits. (p. 16)
Viewed in the commercial sense, the IOC can be viewed as a corporate entity that has the exclusive right to commodify the Olympics and the associated international rivalry that plays out on the Olympic stage, the very commodification Smith and Carlos objected to.
Moreover, in the intervening years since 1968, the commercialization of sport in general has increased significantly (Earp, 2011). In the post-Michael Jordon era, successful Olympic athletes like Michael Phelps can earn endorsement deals northwards of $100 million (Mackey, 2012). That is 100 million reasons to be careful not to challenge the dominant narratives posited by the IOC or an athlete’s representative nation. A great Olympic example of the power of the commercialization of sport over an athlete’s media behavior occurred during the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona with the media-savvy Michael Jordan. As a Nike brand spokesman wearing an Olympic jersey made by Reebok, Jordan took care to mount the Olympic podium with an American Flag draped over the offending brand label, rather than risk the ire of Nike (Earp, 2011). The contrast between Jordan’s symbolic gesture and Smith and Carlos’s black power salute testifies to the power of the commercialization of sport.
Of course, the growing audience and salience of the Olympics all but assure the venue will continue to be the target of protests. Indeed, Cotrell and Nelson (2010) find that the incident of protests are rising, however, the character of the protests are changing from the nation versus nation boycotts typified during the Cold War, and protests seeking domestic policy change, like that of Smith and Carlos, to protest of transnational issues such as globalization or the environment. In addition, while the IOC has maintained firm resistance against such activities, host nations are becoming more adept at managing protests by providing specific zones for activist to operate within (Cotrell & Nelson, 2010). The changing nature of Olympic protest, the growing commercialization of sport, and the growing sophistication of protest management techniques, appear to negate the likelihood of a similarly powerful protest occurring in future Olympiads. What does this say about the future of the tripartite public sphere that has emerged in sport, politics, and the media?
It seems the implications are grim for would-be activists that seek to use the Olympic stage as a platform for social change and participatory democracy. The array of political and economic forces surrounding the Olympics, are oriented in such a way as to assure that the narratives remain shaped by commercial and state actors. In this sense, there is little room for the collective action frames typified in the notion of participatory democracy, rather the environment is more suitable for the notion of limited citizenship (Gamson, 2001). Even in the era of new media, this author wonders whether the networked public sphere enabled by new media can moderate the effects of the economic and political forces that shape Olympic discourse. As a case in point, the most dramatic social media protest of the London Olympics had to do with the NBC broadcast and issues arising from their handling of time zones and web streaming of live events, (Deitsch, 2012); not exactly a call for sweeping social change.
However, despite the challenges of political demonstration at the Olympics, there is some reason for hope that Smith and Carlos’ legacy remains an example for others. During the London Olympics, in the backdrop of the IOC’s refusal to permit a moment of silence for the victims of the Munich Olympic terrorist attacks, French swimmer, Fabien Gilot, sported a very visible Hebrew tattoo on his left arm in commemoration of his Jewish grandfather and Holocaust survivor, that said ‘I am nothing without them’ (Lebrecht, 2012). While it is not known whether the tattoo was in direct response to the IOC refusal, the widespread coverage of the tattoo suggests that cultural symbols retain their power in an Olympic setting.
While this author used a wide variety of sources from both the popular press and scholarly research, there were several scholarly sources whose inclusion informed the theoretical perspectives presented in this paper, and as such, warrant brief comment. Bass’ (2002) work utilized a critical culturist perspective in examining the events leading up to and following the black power salute. Likewise, Hartmann (1996) follows a similar path. Bodroghkozy (2008) appears to examine the role of television in the civil rights movement using medium theory to illuminate how the specific attributes of network television supported the movement. Finally, Zirin (2008), and the perspective Zirin shares in the documentaries by Small and Zirin (2008) and Earp (2011), are largely discussed from a social-culturist perspective in the examination of the media sport experience to identify the forces that affected Smith and Carlos.
The powerful symbol of Smith and Carlos’ defiant protest remains in the collective consciousness of U.S. culture even today. While Smith and Carlos’ potent gesture during the 1968 Olympics was greeted with nearly universal condemnation by the American press, in the final analysis, the athletes were proven to be on the right side of history. While the Olympics as a platform for protest is more attractive then ever, the economic and political consequences of such action are also more severe, particularly given the rising commercialization of sport. This author wonders whether the courage of Smith and Carlos’ defining moment would be possible in the post-modern era? It appears more likely that today’s would-be activist athletes would succumb to the forces that assure that the Olympic stage is preserved for state and commercial actors and their dominant narratives.
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