Anatomy of a protest

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Dave Zirin and John Carlos, The John Carlos Story (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011)

If the definition of mis-government is a society which disdains spending on health or education but fritters billions on prestige projects designed to boost its leaders’ global prestige; then there are few processes better designed to speed this process than when a country wins the competition to host an Olympic games.

For John Carlos and Tommie Smith, and the other protesters of 1968, the enemy was something more specific than our own generation’s villains of privatisation and corruption. Their demands were:

  • restore Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight boxing title
  • remove Avery Brundage as head of the International Olympic Committee
  • disinvite South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympics

Their vehicle, the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), called for boycotts of the Mexico Olympics. But the boycott position crumbled, from a mixture of weakness (one of the activists behind the scene was Martin Luther King; the athletes were disorientated after his death) and strength (South Africa was banned).

Carlos and Smith, two of the most ardent boycotters, qualified for the Olympics and travelled to Mexico, arriving in the immediate aftermath of the slaughter of several hundred student protesters. They were determined to do something to demonstrate against racism and only settled belatedly on the tactic of the black power salute.

The iconography of the scene turns out to subtly more complex than just the two saluters sharing a single pair of black gloves. Carlos and Smith wore beads to remember the American history of lynching. They refused to wear shoes, their bare feet symbolising the poverty in which so many black Americans have lived. Carlos wore a black t-shirt to hide his USA vest.

Peter Norman, the (white) Australian silver medallist in the 200 metres, wore an OPHR badge on the podium, in solidarity with Carlos and Smith.

Carlos reveals that he had been overwhelmed by the significance of the Olympics from an early age: “Of course I listened to every sport on the radio, but nothing captured my mind, heart and spirit quite like the Olympic Games … The sheer variety of sports, the idea of the finest athletes from around the globe gathering and representing their countries: it was different, and the fact that it was very four years just made it feel like an extra kind of special.”

He hoped to swim at the Olympics; the absence of a full-size pool in New York open to black swimmers stymied this early ambition.

Growing up in Harlem, Carlos’ early teens were spent stealing from trains and distributing food and nappies among local residents. The weeks spent running, heavily laden, from police officers, were a preparation of sorts.

Carlos’ athletic breakthrough occurred when he was asked to try out, together with children several years his senior, for the high school team:

“I hadn’t shown up to run so I was wearing these big, heavy clodhoppers. We called them ‘Ivy League shoes’ because they had no style … In [my father’s] mind, if you had on Ivy League shoes, you were good to go because they would never wear out in the broken asphalt of New York City and so that’s what my brothers, my sisters, and I would wear.”

“Despite these Ivy league shoes, I lined up alongside the fastest guys on the high school team in my street clothes and my clodhoppers to run 100 yards. When the coach said ‘go’, I pumped my legs, and felt the resistance against my pants. I kicked out my feet and felt the heaviness of my shoes. And then, I crossed the finish line and saw that everyone was way back. snacking on my dust. Mild-mannered Mr Youngerman whooped loudly and said, ‘Oh sit, we got a phenom here.’”

The drama culminates in the podium scene. The gesture was not popular; nor did Carlos or Smith expect it to be:

“As the national anthems played”, Carlos explains, “the calm before the storm ended and the boos started coming down. The people who weren’t booing were screaming the national anthem … I thought about what Tommie and I had already said to each other: ‘If anybody has a high-power rifle and they hit the trigger, just remember that we’ve been trained to listen to the gun. So, just focus and hit the deck.”

“If you look at the pictures”, Carlos continues, “Tommie’s first and back are so straight it looks like he was drawn with a protractor. My arm is slightly bent. That was because I wanted to make sure in case someone rushed us. I could throw down a hammer punch to protect us.”

With London 2012 due soon, this book reminds us that there are more routes to success in the Olympics that studying at Loughborough and having a father who worked as a manager. It is published in the US only; but can be ordered through Bookmarks, etc.

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