Two legendary athletes, who are featured in what Time magazine regards as one of the top-50 most iconic photographs of all time, will finally be honored for their athletic achievements next month. Olympic sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith made worldwide headlines after thrusting their black leather-clad fists skyward during the Summer Olympics in Mexico City medal ceremony Oct. 16, 1968. They stood in their black socks on the podium, in protest of poverty and racism in the land of the free. They were promptly expelled from the Olympic Village and white-balled from many sporting events for several decades.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee announced that they will finally reward the two runners with its highest honor—induction into the USOPC Hall of Fame on Nov. 1, in Colorado Springs. They established their hall of fame in 1979, but have been sporadic throughout the years regarding new inductees, with only 16 total ceremonies, and this one being the first one in seven years.
It has been noted that Carlos and Smith have been ostracized from many sporting events—both amateur as well as professional—throughout the decades since. Many contend that their exclusion from the USOPC’s Hall-Of-Fame has more to do with their politics than their on-track accomplishments.
“One could be forgiven for rolling their eyes at the USOC finally—after 51 years—catching up with the rest of the world,” stated the Nation’s sports columnist, Dave Zinn, who also co-authored Carlos’ autobiography.
With Muhammad Ali in boxing exile at the time, and NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sitting out those Olympics, word was circulating that some athletes might protest at the Games.
“We intend to have every athlete thoroughly understand that we will countenance no nonsense and that anyone that participates or that attempts to participate in any demonstration as referred to will be immediately suspended as a member of our team and returned to his home at the earliest possible date,” warned then-head of the USOC, Doug Roby, two months prior to the Olympics starting.
The punishment was swift. With the IOC concerned “that racial dissension might spread to other delegations if USOC refused to suspend Smith and Carlos,” according to a U.S. Embassy report. They felt that “something had to be done as this incident could not be ignored.”
Then USOC’s communications director, Robert Paul Jr. noted: “President Roby reconvened his Board and in plain English relayed the edict-vote to send Smith and Carlos packing or the USA would be eliminated.”
Zinn wrote: “Carlos and Smith have been proven correct by history. They were correct that South Africa and Rhodesia should not be allowed into the Olympics. They were correct that Avery Brundage was a racist who had no business heading the IOC. They were correct that the injustices of 1968 demanded a visceral and visual response. This is a case of the USOC finally acknowledging the nose on its face.”
Often overlooked is the fact that Smith had broken the world record in the 200 meters and captured a Gold Medal, while Carlos captured a Bronze. Also that their Black Power salute on the world stage was meant to draw attention to the overt oppression and racism African Americans endured in this country.