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African American Olympians

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Tommie Smith and John Carlos

Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos stare downward during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze for the 200 meter run at the Olympic Games in Mexico City. Australian silver medalist Peter Norman is at left. AP Photo.

Few images of the Civil Rights era are more iconic than Tommie Smith and John Carlos's raised fists. The defiant gesture, made on the winner's podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, both literally and figuratively brought political protest down to the sporting world. The protest, ironically, capped a huge U.S. victory: Smith had just won the 200-meter dash, and Carlos had come in third; placing second was Australian Peter Norman. The act, though last-minute in its execution, was not entirely unplanned. Both runners were members of San Jose State University's famed track program—dubbed "Speed City"—and were mentored by professor Harry Edwards, an activist who founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Believing sports and civil rights to be intimately tied, Edwards told the New York Times that "It's time for the black people to stand up as men and women and refuse to be utilized as performing animals for a little extra dog food." The group first proposed a boycott, but after Rhodesia and South Africa were barred the Games, one of the three stated goals of the OPHR, the idea lost support. Smith and Carlos arrived in Mexico City without any specific plan, just a sense that they would protest when the time was right.

Immediate reactions to the gesture were mixed, but condemnation by mainstream pundits appeared to win out. In one notable commentary, sportscaster Brent Musberger called Smith and Carlos "black-skinned stormtroopers," and each found it difficult to return to life back in the United States. In the 1990s there was renewed interest in the runners, and the tide of public opinion seems to have largely turned in their favor. In 1999 HBO produced a documentary called Fists of Freedom, and in 2005 SJSU unveiled a sculpture of the men. Still, unfairly or not, their famous protest has overshadowed the runners' extraordinary track achievements, particular Smith's. His 1968 win in the 200-meter dash set a world record that would not be broken until the 1984 Games, and he remains the only athlete to have held 11 world records simultaneously.

Hano, Arnold."The Black Rebel Who 'Whitelists' The Olympics." New York Times. 12 May 1968.

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