The 1968 Mexico City Games took place to a backdrop of violent struggle, social upheavel and civil protest which were gripping nations all over the world. The activism of the uprisings stirred some athletes into action.
Smith, center, and Carlos, right, were sent hom from Mexico City after their podium protest
Much is being made of athletes wanting to wear subtle wristbands to show their support for human rights organizations while on duty at the Beijing Games. The tiny strips of plastic, although weighty in their symbolism, will always be overshadowed by one of the most public displays of political support seen at the Games in Mexico City in 1968.
The Games of the XIX Olympiad began under a cloud, coming just ten days after the Tlatelolco massacre, a brutal suppression of student protestors who were, perversely enough, rallying against police brutality and governmental oppression. More than 300 student protesters were killed by Mexican army and police officers, leading to an emergency meeting by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) where it considered canceling the games.
Latin America's only Olympics went ahead despite the massacre but there would be no end to the political radicalism which was sweeping the globe at the time. As the Games went on, however, political gestures would take center stage in the arena; gestures which would enter Olympic history.
After the final of the 200 meters, US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the gold and bronze medal winners respectively, stood shoeless either side of silver medalist Peter Norman on the podium and then, as the Star Spangled Banner played, they lowered their heads and each defiantly raised a black-gloved fist into the air -- the Black Power salute.
Smith also wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride while Carlos wore beads which he described "were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed that no-one said a prayer for, and for those that were hung and tarred, and those thrown off the side of the boats during passage."
All three wore badges showing their support for the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). The Americans were roundly booed by the Mexico City crowd as they left the podium.
The image of Smith and Carlos in the Black Power salute was beamed across the world and drew fierce criticism from many quarters, none more so than from the IOC which was enraged by such an obvious political statement during an Olympics.
Olympic Committee takes a hard line
In an immediate response to their actions, IOC President Avery Brundage ordered Smith and Carlos suspended from the US team and banned from the Olympic Village. When the US Olympic Committee refused, Avery threatened to ban the entire US track team. This threat led to the two athletes being expelled from the Games.
In response, Smith later said: "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."
The Russian invasion was met with huge protests in Prague
Theirs was not the only political statement at the 1968 Games. Czechoslovakian gymnast Věra Čáslavská twice turned her head down and away during the playing of the Soviet national anthem when collecting her medals beside Russian athletes for the balance beam and floor events.
While the IOC let her protest against the recent Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia go unpunished, the new regime in her own country were not so lenient. Her Olympic protest and outspoken opposition to Communism in her own country eventually led to bans from sporting events and international travel which last for many years after the Olympics in Mexico.