When Sports Had Real Heroes

By Carla Peay
Updated: July 23, 2008

NormanWASHINGTON, D.C. — In 1968, during the Summer Olympic Games, two American athletes, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, made a powerful statement while standing on the podium after competing in the 200-meter final.

Smith, who won gold, and Carlos, who won bronze, bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists during the national anthem, and raised the collective consciousness of people across the globe with their actions — a statement against racism in the United States.

Smith would make the following statement after the incident: “If I win, I am American, not a Black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are Black and we are proud of being Black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”

Black Americans on that day 40 years ago may have understood, and saluted Smith and Carlos for their actions, but those actions would not go without consequences.

The two men were subsequently expelled from the Olympic Games, after International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Avery Brundage threatened to ban the entire U.S track team if Smith and Carlos were allowed to remain in the Olympic village.

Back in the U.S., their actions were greeted by ridicule from the public and the mainstream media, most famously by Time Magazine, which ran a picture of the two athletes underneath the five Olympic rings, replacing the Olympic slogan “Higher, Faster, Stronger” with “Angrier, Nastier, Uglier”.

Both also received death threats following the incident.

But their perseverance prevailed.

Smith went on to play in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals and eventually became a U.S. track coach, helping the U.S. team in Barcelona in 1995, and is now a public speaker. Carlos also played in the NFL, with the Philadelphia Eagles, before a knee injury ended his career.

He worked for the Olympic organizing committee for the 1996 Summer Games in Los Angeles, and currently coaches track in Palm Springs. At the 2008 ESPY Awards, both men received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

The 2008 Summer Olympics will begin on Aug. 8 in Beijing, amid controversies over civil rights violations in China, and the continuing questions over performance enhancing drugs.

For those of us who love track and field, and look forward to the Olympics with excitement, athletes like Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery and Kelli White, all found to have used performance enhancing drugs, have dampened that enthusiasm, and replaced our excitement with skepticism.

Perhaps the games weren’t as clean in 1968 as we would all like to believe; that, we will never know. But there was clearly a different feeling about the Olympics in those days. We believed they were what the ancient Greeks designed them to be — a true competition among the best amateur athletes in the world.

But what they also became for one special day on a podium in Mexico City was a world wide stage for two courageous men to take a stand, to face the consequences of bold actions, and to challenge their own country, and indeed the world to address the harsh realities of life for Black people in America.

40 years after that courageous act, Smith and Carlos are finally being recognized as true heroes of the sports world. They are two senior members of a fraternity that has far too many members who care more about dollar signs than political causes, and who see their athletic talent as a birthright to fame and fortune, without consequences, without sacrifices.

If indeed some of today’s modern Black athletes do not feel the need to take a stand on anything other than the size of their latest endorsement deals, it’s because men like Smith and Carlos made those sacrifices for them.