Remembering all the heroes of the 1968 Olympics

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A guest post by Jim Jepps of Big Smoke

We quite rightly remember the athletes John Carlos and Tommy Smith who gave the black power salute on winning their bronze and gold medals respectively for the 200m at the ‘68 Mexico City Olympics. Their powerful stand against racism still resonates today but in ’68 and the context of Jim Crow, Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King and segregation it was a sharp challenge to a world of injustice.

However, we don’t always remember the other protests around the Mexico Games that were just as important and had equally dire consequences for those willing to put themselves on the line. Ostracised and victimised for standing up for what was right Carlos and Smith both suffered for their stand. They were not alone.

Just before the Games began the 44 people were killed in local protests and at the opening ceremony in Mexico City students flew a dove-shaped kite in opposition to the massacre, so the political atmosphere at the Games was febrile from the start.

Peter Norman, the Australian athlete, who won silver in the famous 200m race wore a patch in solidarity with Carlos and Smith. He made clear it was his opposition to racial segregation and his religious faith that led him to do so.

Speaking years after the event he had no regrets and that, despite the personal cost, he had helped create a historic legacy. That legacy was not forgotten as Carlos and Smith acted as pall bearers at Norman’s funeral in 2006:

“I’m a firm believer that in a victory ceremony for the Olympics, there’s three guys that stand up there, each one’s been given about a square metre of God’s earth to stand on, and what any one of the three choose to do with his little square metre at that stage is entirely up to him.

“If it hadn’t been for that demonstration on that day, it would have just been another silver medal that Australia picked up along the line. No one would ever have heard of Peter Norman.”

Norman’s stand signalled the end of his international athletics career and despite qualifying 13 times for the ’72 Munich Olympics the Australian authorities refused to send him. They even refused to invite him to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the only Australian Olympian they excluded from the ceremonies (he eventually attended as a guest of the Americans).

However, the good news is that the Australian Parliament is set to apologise to Norman in a ground-breaking if long overdue debate:

“That this House; Recognises the extraordinary athletic achievements of the late Peter Norman, who won the silver medal in the 200 metres sprint running at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, in a time of 20.06 seconds, which still stands as the Australian record;”

“Acknowledges the bravery of Peter Norman in donning an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the podium, in solidarity with African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave the black power salute;”

“Apologises to Peter Norman for the wrong done by Australia in failing to send him to the 1972 Munich Olympics, despite repeatedly qualifying; and Belatedly recognises the powerful role that Peter Norman played in furthering racial equality.”

The fourth Olympian who suffered after a political protest in ’68 is someone we discuss even less today. She was Czech gymnast Věra Čáslavská, whose stand is a perfect parallel with that of Carlos and Smith.

In the wake of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the USSR and the overturning of its new, independent government, she took the brave step of refusing to acknowledge the USSR anthem when it was played during the medal ceremonies, turning her head away and down.

It sounds such a small thing, but Věra Čáslavská knew that despite her astonishing Olympic achievements (she still holds the record number of medals for gymnastics to this day) the repercussions of what she was doing could be very grave, even fatal.

Like Norman she was rewarded for her protest by being disbarred from international competition – but her support for the Prague Spring saw her barred from travelling, working or attending sporting events at all. It was only with the fall of the Eastern Bloc decades later that Čáslavská was properly honoured by her country.

Perhaps we relate to Carlos and Smith’s protest against racism because still feels alive today, while the tyrannies of the East Bloc are fading into history that her dramatic stand feels so forgotten. But Čáslavská, Norman, Smith and Carlos all deserve their place in the hall of fame for Olympian heroes who were willing to stand up against injustice no matter what the personal consequences might be.

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