They were suspended from the US team and expelled from the Olympics. They were accused of breaching “the Olympic spirit”. And they were ostracized, abused and never ran for their country again.
But the three men I’m talking about weren’t drug cheats. Nor were they sport bureaucrats who’d been lining their own pockets. Their crime was to make a stand for human rights on a stage that could hardly be more global. They broke the rules, but they did it for a reason that was about as far from self-interest as you can get.
I’m talking about Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman, the 200m medal winners at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, who staged what’s often dubbed a ‘black power’ protest.
Maria Sharapova fails a drugs test, and her sponsor, Head, tells anti-doping officials they’ve got it wrong, and life goes on with the launch of her own brand of chocolates. Justin Gatlin is banned twice for using steroids, yet he continues to run for the US team, and Nike still sponsors him. Compare that with Smith, Carlos and Norman, who were cast out and left virtually penniless.
1968 was a tense and turbulent time. Martin Luther King had been assassinated in April, followed by Robert Kennedy in June. Muhammad Ali was banned from boxing and appealing a prison sentence for refusing to go to Vietnam. Unrest had spread across the United States, reaching the doors of the Democratic Convention in Chicago that summer. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island – and would be for another 22 years.
Smith and Carlos were members of a group called the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), which had originally advocated an Olympic boycott. They wanted South Africa and Rhodesia excluded from the Games and Muhammad Ali’s world heavyweight boxing title restored. They also called for Avery Brundage, widely seen as racist and anti-semitic, to step down as president of the International Olympic Committee. When Brundage withdrew invitations for South Africa and Rhodesia to go to Mexico, support for OPHR’s boycott plan weakened, and Smith and Carlos decided instead to focus their protest on black poverty and lynchings in the US.
Smith was the Usain Bolt of his era. In 1966, he had set world records for 200m, 220yards and the now rarely-run 200m on a straight track. In winning gold in Mexico, Smith ran a new world record time of 19.83 seconds that would not be broken until 1979. Norman, a white Australian, took the silver and Carlos the bronze.
But what happened next would put the three men in the history books in a way no sporting feat could. Smith and Carlos walked to the Olympic podium barefoot to protest against poverty and each wearing a black glove, OPHR badges and beads to symbolise lynchings. Norman wore the OPHR badge to show solidarity. As the Star Spangled Banner played, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised their gloved hands in a symbolic protest that Smith would later call a human rights, rather than black power, salute.
Brundage, who had allowed German athletes to use the Nazi salute at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, responded by having the two athletes expelled from the Games. They received death threats, were vilified by the US media and never ran in a major championship again. Norman, meanwhile, was reprimanded by the Australian Olympic authorities and not selected for the 1972 Olympics in Munich, despite having run the qualifying time on 13 occasions.
As a teenage wannabe sprinter, Smith and Carlos were my heroes. I had watched every 200m heat as well as the final and was awestruck at the audacity of their protest. Years later, when I was on holiday with my family in Los Angeles, I felt an urge to try to make contact with Smith. It was 1997 and, having been working for Athletics Weekly and Running magazine, I had heard he was coaching at Santa Monica College.
My daughter, Cerys, and I went looking for him and found the college’s floodlit track a few blocks from our hotel. It was March, dark and a little chilly, and only a handful of athletes were still training. As they walked off to get changed, I asked one if she knew Tommie Smith. She smiled. He’s down there, she said, pointing to a path running alongside a single storey college outbuilding.
We followed the path and at the end of the building a door to an office no larger than a box bedroom was open. Inside, a tall African-American man with receding grey hair and glasses was putting some files away in a cabinet. I said: “Are you Tommie Smith?” He said: “Yes.” I mumbled some words of introduction and said: “I just wanted to shake your hand.” He put his hand out – the hand he had raised in Mexico City decades earlier – and I shook it.
That was 1997. Fifteen years later, I was pleased to be involved in bringing Tommie to London for the UK premiere of the film Salute in the build up to the Olympics. Freshwater worked with campaign group Operation Black Vote and the film’s producer to organise an event at a five star hotel in central London at which he spoke about his protest 44 years earlier. An unassuming man, he made light of it all, but the audience – which included some of Britain’s top athletes – knew they were in the presence of greatness.
Smith, Carlos and Norman have now been honoured with statues, murals, films, books and countless awards. They are icons and role models for millions around the world. In decades to come, on the other hand, Sharapova and Gatlin may still be counting their millions – but will they be anyone’s heroes or credited with helping to make the world a better place? I doubt it.
Steve is the author of Over The Line, a novel telling the story of an Olympic poster girl who becomes embroiled in a drugs controversy.
Follow him on Twitter @fromstevehowell
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