The Black Salute

On the morning of October 16, 1968, the world of sports was shaken like never before. It was barely six months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., with America still stricken with the African Americans’ movement for equal rights. The Olympics Project for Human Rights (OPHR), an organization established to protest racial apartheid in the US and South Africa, called for a boycott of the Mexico City Games of 1968 that failed to materialize. Yet, the Games are more or less remembered mostly for the organization’s propaganda.

The highlight of the Games was undoubtedly the infamous Black Power salute, performed by two Black Americans after the 200 meter final. Tommie Smith won the gold and John Carlos won the bronze, while Australian Peter Norman took home the silver. As the three of them climbed onto the dais, they wore an OPHR badge. These Americans did not wear any shoes, and wore black socks to represent the impoverished condition of the Blacks. While the Star – Spangled Banner was being played, Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and wore a black glove (Originally, both were to wear a pair of gloves, but Carlos had forgotten his and Peter Norman suggested to them to share Smith’s pair. Tommie Smith wore one on his right hand and Carlos on his left hand). As the two Americans left the field, they were booed off by the crowd.

The incident made front page news around the world. The IOC felt that there was no place for such political gestures at the Olympic Games, and the both Tommie Smith and John Carlos were suspended from the US team and banned from the Games Village. Back home, they and their families received several death threats. Neither of the two continued in the field of athletics for long, while Norman was not picked for the Australian team for the 1972 Games despite finishing third in trials. Tommie Smith and John Carlos played American Football. Norman continued to run till 1985 when he contracted gangrene after tearing his Achilles muscle, which nearly resulted in amputation of his leg.

Although the media was initially against the silent protest, their attitude has changed over time. Many hail the incident as an important event during the Civil Rights movement. In 2005, San Jose University unveiled twenty feet high statues of the two athletes’ protest. Many other protests during sporting events have been inspired by the salute (remember the black armbands worn by Heath Streak and Henry Olonga during the 2003 World Cup, protesting against Robert Mugabe’s tyrannical rule in Zimbabwe?). Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman may not have achieved as much as most of the other legendary Olympians, but their contribution to sports and society will never be forgotten.

Raveesh Bhalla

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