• Idy Uyoe

The 1968 Olympic Protest and its Connection to Africa

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

The Black Pride Salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City was intended to protest racial injustice, which it did. But its impact had a unique connection to Africa and people of color worldwide. - By Idy Uyoe


 

October 16th is the 53rd anniversary of one of the most iconic photographs in history. At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, African American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised “fists of protest” on the medal stand following their victories in the men’s Olympic 200-meter event, a race won by Smith. The protests were part of a broader movement called “The Olympic Project for Human Rights,” and Africa was very much a part of the cause. Among the demands of the OPHR which touched Africa, were:


1. The exclusion of Rhodesia and South Africa from the Olympics because of their white minority rule systems of government. In other words, Apartheid.

2. The unconditional release of Nelson Mandela from prison


3. The restoration of Muhammad Ali as the legitimate heavyweight champion of the world. Ali’s title was unjustly stripped of his title following his refused to be drafted into the United States army to fight in the Vietnam war. Many saw this move as politically motivated.



(L) Nelson Mandela in former prison cell , (R) with Francois Pienaar, captain, South Africa Rugby Team

MANDELA SAW THIS PROTEST FROM PRISON


A poster of Carlos and Smith was smuggled into Robben Island Prison, where Mandela served most of 18 of his 27-year prison term. He would later credit this image of shaping his views of sport as a powerful force for diplomacy and change. Mandela himself would be released 22 years after this protest, and in 1995, a now President Mandela would use the South African rugby team to unite a fragile democracy a year after the collapse of Apartheid. It is worth noting that in 1977, a year after the Soweto uprising, Carlos traveled to South Africa, but was blocked by authorities from seeing Mandela.


ALI'S TITLED WAS RESTORED, BUT HE HAD TO GO TO AFRICA TO GET IT


As for Muhammad Ali, his conviction for draft evasion was unanimously overturned by the United States Supreme Court in 1971, however, he would need to travel to Africa to be restored as champion. On October 30th, 1974, six years after the Smith and Carlos protest, Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman in Kinshasa Zaire, to finally, regain the heavyweight championship of the world, becoming only the second man in history to do so.


Muhammad Ali, KInsasha, Zaire, 1974

THE PRIMARY ISSUES OF THE PROTEST REMAIN UNRESOLVED


In an ironic way, the Africa linked elements of this protests were all fulfilled, though the primary aims of the OPHR, which included providing opportunities for black coaches in the American collegiate sport system, has still fallen short to this day. Though African Americans comprise the majority of athletes in revenue generating sports in the American collegiate sport system, the ratio of black coaches in no way reflects this composition.


THE IMAGE ENDURES A HALF CENTURY LATER


Tommie Smith and John Carlos would suffer significant consequences for taking a stand, including dismissal from the Olympic team, though the image of the protest has been rehabilitated over the last half century. Today both men are in the United States Olympic Committee Hall of Fame, and although protests remain banned at the Olympic Games, the International Olympic Committee on multiple occasions has commended the men for their courage and convictions.


While Smith and Carlos were in fact wearing American Olympic uniforms on the podium, their gesture stood tall for people of color from every country of the world, an enduring image of inclusion which lives on. - Idy Uyoe


Tommie Smith (L) and John Carlos (2008) , Receiving the Arthur Ashe Courage at the ESPY Awards.

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