Exactly 50 years ago on Tuesday, African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos provided the Olympic Games with one of its most iconic moments of all-time when they raised a black-gloved fisted hand while standing on the podium having respectively won gold and bronze in the men’s 200 metres. Second-placed Peter Norman, an Australian, did not raise his fist but wore a human rights badge on his jacket in solidarity with his fellow runners. Half a century on, it remains one of sport’s most significant political statements.
Smith and Carlos had already decided what they were going to do before the race, and thus removed their shoes before receiving their medals. The pair both wore black socks to signify black poverty in the United States and around the world, with Carlos later explaining that he and Smith were protesting “for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred,” while Smith stated that “we were concerned about the lack of black assistant coaches, about how Muhammad Ali got stripped of his title, about the lack of access to good housing and our kids not being able to attend the top colleges.” Norman, for his part, was a critic of Australia’s former White Australia Policy and was therefore more than happy to stand in solidarity with the American duo in front of the watching world.
The image of Smith and Carlos’ black power salute was indeed transmitted around the globe, and the image taken by photographer John Dominis is still one of the most powerful and instantly recognisable in the history of the modern Olympics – even though Dominis himself admits that he did not fully comprehend the significance until after the event.
Their actions were not without consequences, however, and while Smith and Carlos – and, to a lesser extent, Norman – received some support back home, they were also forced to field plenty of criticism from both inside and outside of athletics. IOC president Avery Brundage deemed the move to go against the apolitical nature of the Games and suggested that Smith and Carlos should be suspended from the United States team. The United States Olympics Committee initially stood by their athletes, but the threat of expulsion of the entire track team saw them backtrack and the pair were duly banned.
Many publications in the American media criticised the two men, while plenty of ordinary citizens were angry at their supposedly unpatriotic actions. Tensions were already running high in the country due to the Vietnam War and the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the reaction to Smith and Carlos split the United States into two camps once more.
“It was a cry for freedom,” Smith said in 2016, and the public view has certainly become more and more favourable as the years have gone by. The same applies to Norman, who was originally treated as an outcast in Australia but was posthumously awarded the Order of Merit earlier this year.
The trio’s act may have taken place at the Olympics, but it transcended the event and sport as a whole. Indeed, many consider it one of the most important episodes in both African-American history and the struggle for civil rights, which is why it is still important to remember the actions of Smith, Carlos and Norman 50 years on.