THE GUARDAIN NEWSPAPER
From the Vault: black power shocks the OlympicsForty years ago this week Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the Olympic
The latest instalment in our series of classic reports comes from October 1968 and the Mexico Olympics.
Typically this series singles out the work of a particular writer; in looking at the black power demonstrations though we have picked out a series of articles, showing how the Guardian covered the unfolding controversy over a series of successive days. Please note, we’ve kept the language as it originally appeared in the paper, as politically incorrect as it may seem today.
When the story of Smith and Carlos’s demonstration first broke, the Guardian’s editors appear to have had different priorities for the front page. The news of the black power salute was confined to the final paragraph of a story about Lilian Board’s silver medal in the women’s 400m. Almost an afterthought in a story of British success, the paper contained only the briefest mention of the protest:
The 200 metres gold medal went to Tommie Smith, of the United States. The time, 19.8 sec, is a new Olympic record and beats the existing ratified world record. When Smith and John Carlos, another American Negro, took the bronze in the 200 metres, were standing on the victory podium, they raised black-gloved fists in a black power salute. As they walked from the arena, many Americans booed them.
Inside the sport section, John Samuel wrote this report of the post-race press conference. his piece gives an interesting insight into the general ferment in the Olympic atmosphere. While history remembers Carlos and Smith, the other details of the racial tension so prevalent at the Games, which Samuel mentions here, have been largely forgotten:
Smith and Carlos show a keen sense of publicity
Although every athletics expert was aware that the United States Negro athletes might protest, the manner of it surprised many in the Olympic Stadium here last night. It was more restrained and yet more effective than some had thought. There was the possibility that Tommie Smith or John Carlos, overwhelming favourites for the sprint events, might refuse to appear at the medals ceremony. In fact, both showed a keen awareness of the publicity values involved, and their appearance in black socks and black scarves, and each with a single black glove, Smith’s on the right hand, Carlos’s on the left, showed a knowledge of public relations equalled only by Cassius Clay, now Mohammad Ali.
At the press conference afterwards, the same awareness was apparent. The representatives of the world’s press crowded into a room perhaps 40 feet by 30. The organisation insisted that questions and replies were put in English, Spanish and French.
International press conferences usually begin with pussy-footing questions of remarkable banality. The first question to Carlos was why he looked over his left shoulder and whether it cost him second place – a good technical question, but utterly remote from the emotional context of the occasion.
Carlos answered it carefully, saying that he was a little troubled with a leg and wanted to make sure that Smith was all right and could come through. This ignored the aspect that the Australian, Peter Norman, was on his right side and came bursting through to take second place in a manner neither US runner could have appreciated.
Questions concerning which coach had meant most to Smith was hooted off court by all except the conscientious interpreters, who went through question and formal reply in all three languages. Finally Carlos lost patience and burst out with the statement: "We are black and we are proud to be black in white America. Black Americans, he said, would understand the nature of their demonstration.
“We are not a show horse doing a performance, so if we do a good job we get paid some peanuts. All through these Olympics I hear them say, ‘Boy, boy, boy, you’re doing well.’ I am tired of that. I want the whole press of the world to hear what I say and either say it as I say it or not say it at all.”
Carlos said he had given his medal to his wife. If people thought that they were being bad, they should look ahead to 1972. Africans were winning more and more. “1972 is going to be mighty rough,” he said.
In the meantime, in the village there was a curious incident involving Poles and Guineans. The Poles objected to the Guineans singing tribal songs. Their riposte was to drop plastic bags filled with water on the Guineans’ heads. The Guineans responded by throwing stones and slates.
The Kenyans, at a press conference, were at pains to say that they no longer had a white coach. The old arguments between Left and Right, East and West, Communist and Conservative, suddenly seemed old hat.
The US team officials were obviously left with a problem. What, if any, disciplinary action should be taken? “I’d pack them all back home,” one British official said trenchantly. He perhaps has no White House to deal with.
By the following day however, the news agenda had clearly changed. The Guardian’s front page on October 17 was given over to coverage of the race controversy unfolding in Mexico City, bumping aside news of John Lennon’s arrest for marijuana possession and a story about a 250,000-tonne butter surplus within the EEC.
Negroes give another display of Black Power
There was another Black Power demonstration here today by the three American Negro medal winners in the Men’s 400m. But it was more restrained than yesterday’s demonstration by Tommie Smith and John Carlos after the 200m event.
The 400-metres winner, Lee Evans, who had a world record time of 43.8 seconds, and his colleagues Larry Smith and Ron Freeman, who took silver and bronze, mounted the rostrum to receive their medals wearing black berets. When their names were announced they raised their fists in salute.
As the American anthem was played they removed their berets. It was a demonstration less than dramatic, yet having greater respect for their national flag than that of their colleagues who were in the medal presentation ceremony yesterday. It ignored a warning from the US team officials that any Negroes would be sent home if they staged similar demonstrations.
Smith and Carlos were expelled from the American team late last night for their display at the rostrum. They were also said to have had their credentials withdrawn by the State Department, but in Washington this was denied.
This disciplinary action, however, recoiled within the American team. There was a meeting of all the Negro members and suggestions of “important action” later, including a walk-out from the Olympics.
At a press conference after today’s Black Power demonstration, Freeman said they had worn their berets to keep dry from the rain. The room burst into laughter at this.
He added: “If I can’t run 43.8 I wouldn’t be at school now. I feel I won this medal for black people all over the world.”
Evans said he had become a member of the Olympic committee for Human Rights and this had taught him a great deal about people. “We received thousands of letters from those who say they hate us. It wasn’t until I joined a movement like this that I realised what we were up against and what people where could really be like.”
He said he hoped to run again for the US team against Europe in Stuttgart.
The American decision to expel Smith and Carlos came soon after the International Olympic Committee had publicly accused them of violating one of the basic principles of the Olympics – not to mix politics with sport. It said they had used the victory celebration to “advertise their domestic political views” and made it clear it held the United States Olympic Committee responsible for their conduct.
The USOC then put out their own statement apologising to the IOC and the Mexican organising committee. This was a turnabout, for earlier in the day Mr Roby had said there would be no action. The US statement said:
"The USOC expresses its profound regrets to the IOC, to the Mexican Organising Committee and to the people of Mexico for the discourtesy displayed by two members of the team in departing from tradition during a victory ceremony at the Olympic Stadium on October 16.
"The untypical exhibitionism of these athletes also violates the basic standards of sportsmanship and good manners which are highly regarded in the US, and therefore the two men involved are suspended forthwith from the team and ordered to remove themselves from the Olympic village.
“This action is taken in the belief that such immature behaviour is an isolated incident. However if further investigation or subsequent events do not bear out this view, the entire matter will be reevaluated. A repetition of such events by the members of the US team can only be considered a willful disregard of Olympic principles that would warrant the imposition of the severest penalties at the disposal of the USOC.”
The US team manager, Ken Treadway, said he was glad Carlos and Smith had been suspended. “Don’t you think they deserve it?” he asked. The Negro athletes were divided, however, in their opinions. Vincent Matthews, of New York, a member of the 4x400m relay team, said he sympathised with the demonstration. “It was just to show we have power, haven’t we?” He would consider joining any boycott of the Games.
But the Negro boxer, Art Reddan, said he would not join any boycott: “I have waited four years for this opportunity and I am not going to throw it away now. I am just going for the gold.”
Tom McGibbon, the reserve for the single sculls, told me: “That’s a pretty hard decision to take, kicking anyone out of the team. They knew long before they came that the boys might make some form of protest so that was when they should have done something about it.”
At no point does it appear that the Guardian managed to successfully anticipate the judgement history would make on the respective rights and wrongs of the black athletes and the IOC and USOC. The Observer however, in its leader the following sunday, deserves recognition for reaching this bold verdict, which would be vindicated by future opinion:
MEXICO: Black dignity
The American Olympic Committee has made a crashing mistake in sending back the Negro athletes who gave the Black Power salute during the medal-awarding ceremony. In making this gesture, these men were dedicating their victory to their black fellow-countrymen and using the occasion to ventilate their very real grievances. They could scarcely have done so less violently or with greater dignity: they deserved and probably won admiration, not condemnation.