The Olympic Games is here!
Each day of the Games I thought I’d share with you my list of what has made the quadrennial sports carnival so anticipated and so memorable for me over the years. It includes a lot of the good as well as some of the bad and the ugly.
MEXICO CITY 1968: “I WILL STAND WITH YOU.”
The world was in turmoil in 1968.
Russia invaded Czechoslovakia. Japan was experiencing riots. The cultural revolution had begun in China. Castro took control of Cuba. France had student riots. South Africa was in the midst of its horrid apartheid regime. Students in the Olympic host city of Mexico City were massacred in the streets by authorities as Olympians arrived. In Australia, there were protests about everything from the Vietnam War to immigration policy. And in the United States, the long battle for civil rights continued. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April and Presidential aspirant, Robert Kennedy in June.
In the United States, African Americans were denied entry to restaurants, or had to use separate public transport or public toilets.
But to be an African American athlete was slightly more acceptable, and gave a world stage.
Tensions and feelings were so high in the US that there was talk amongst many black athletes of boycotting the 1968 Olympics altogether. It would have decimated the US track and field team. Eventually, cool heads prevailed, with athletes agreeing they would each decide what they could or would do to show their support for the ‘Olympic Project for Human Rights’.
Half-a-world away in Australia, the record on race issues was no better. The government had an official ‘White Australia’ immigration policy. Despite giving Indigenous Australians the right to vote, governments also had a policy of forcibly taking Aboriginal children away from their families – the ‘Stolen Generation’. And, just like in the US, there were places where Aboriginal Australians were simply not welcome.
These two worlds came together when Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos and Australian Peter Norman met in the final of the 200 metres sprint at Mexico City 1968.
Smith finished first in world record time, Norman finished second in Australian record time and Carlos finished third.
In the period between the end of the race and the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos discussed what action they would take in support of civil rights. They let Norman know out of respect. They didn’t expect him to do anything with them because they knew it was ‘their’ fight.
But Norman, who was a 26 year old teacher, was both a committed Christian and typical of many of his generation of Australians: an advocate for human rights.
“I’ll stand with you,” said Norman. “Doing what’s right can never be wrong.”
What happened next has become one of the enduring images – and moments – of the Olympic Games.
When the three athletes turned towards the flagpoles for the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, Smith and Carlos waved one gloved hand in a black power salute, wearing no shoes to signify the poverty of many African Americans. (It’s not often commented upon, but they also had their running spikes facing in different directions which was thought to be at the request of their sponsor, Puma). Peter Norman stood wearing the badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights in support of his fellow medallists.
There was shocked silence in the stadium.
The IOC in 1968 is not that much different from the IOC (or other international sporting organisations) today. They don’t like people who rock the boat.
The then President of the IOC, American Avery Brundage, especially didn’t like black people who rocked the boat. By all reports, he wasn’t a particularly nice man. He apparently had no problem with Nazi salutes at the 1936 Olympic Games.
The IOC demanded that Smith and Carlos be expelled from the Games. After a protest from the US Olympic Committee which saw the IOC threaten to expel all American athletes, Smith and Carlos were sent home.
For the three men, all outstanding athletes, it was the end of their athletics careers.
Smith and Carlos arrived home to death threats and vilification. For African Americans, their gesture was a potent symbol of the civil rights movement. Eventually – and I’m talking decades later – their efforts were recognised and acknowledged.
Peter Norman was ostracised. He was all but ignored by the athletics and Olympics hierarchy in Australia. In the qualifying races for the 1972 Olympics, he qualified 13 times for the 200 metres and five times for the 100 metres. He wasn’t selected. Nothing was ever said to him. In 2012, the Australian Parliament issued an apology. It was too late. He died suddenly in 2006, aged just 64.
For all that the 1968 200 metres is remembered – rightly and proudly in my view – for the salute by Smith and Carlos, and the solidarity shown by Norman, it was also a great race run by three men who had each broken records in qualifying or during heats at the Games.
Smith’s time of 19.83 was the first official time to break 20 seconds. The first unofficial (wind-assisted) time had been Carlos at 19.92. In total, Smith set seven individual world records. Peter Norman’s time of 20.06 remains the Australian record.
I love the story of these three men. Great athletes. Great advocates. They could have done nothing. They chose to do what was right.
I stand with you.