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John Carlos: 1968 Olympics protest ‘a resounding statement that would reach the far ends of the earth’


The iconic image of Tommie Smith (centre) and John Carlos (right) with black-gloved fists raised on the podium at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City
The iconic image of Tommie Smith (centre) and John Carlos (right) with black-gloved fists raised on the podium at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City

The powerful image of athlete John Carlos and his American team-mate Tommie Smith with black-gloved fists raised to the sky on the podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City is one of the most enduring in the history of the Games and one that still resonates in contemporary society.

Smith and Carlos, who won gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200 metres, stood with their heads bowed and hands lifted during the medal ceremony.

The pair made a global impact with their attempt to spread the message of black equality and civil rights in the face of hostility from many quarters.

Dr John Carlos, now aged 76, grew up in Harlem, New York, and was influenced by time spent with iconic and inspirational figures in the battle for racial equality during the 1960s such as Malcolm X and Dr Martin Luther King.

The assassination of the former in 1965 and the latter earlier in 1968 did not deter the American sprinters from highlighting their cause or divert Carlos from his sense of destiny.

‘Born into this world to make that statement’

“Both those individuals helped mould me for what my mission was,” Dr Carlos told BBC Radio Ulster’s ‘Sportsound Meets’ programme.

“As a teenager, a young black man, I was born dead so for someone to put a threat on my life, my philosophy was ‘I’m going to die anyway’, he added.

“I was born into this world to be on that podium in October 1968 in Mexico City to make that statement.

“I met Malcolm X as a child and had the opportunity to run through the streets with him for a year and a half to get as much knowledge from him as I could.

“He gave me the foundation and Martin gave me the wisdom to present myself in Mexico City where we could make a resounding statement that would reach the far ends of the earth – a non-violent statement but a pungent statement at the same time.

“We caught everyone by surprise – people who were there in the stadium and shocked viewers around the world watching on television.

“It was not about that medal around your neck but about trying to make it a better situation for your children and your children’s children.

“We received more international sympathy outside the United States than inside, where we received a lot of abuse. We were making a statement as young black individuals after 480 years of oppression.”

John Carlos
Dr John Carlos’s actions brought the issue of racial equality to the attention of a global audience

‘Change doesn’t happen instantaneously’

This year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo are being held against the backdrop of continued efforts to highlight racial inequality following the killing of George Floyd in police custody in the US through initiative such as the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and sportsmen and women ‘taking a knee’ prior to the start of events.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) initially outlawed any attempts to highlight racism at this year’s Games through taking a knee in line with Rule 50 of their code which bans demonstrations of “political, religious or racial propaganda” on Olympic sites.

This was subsequently relaxed partially to permit peaceful protest prior to competition but sanctions could still apply for podium gestures.

“The modern Olympics these days are pretty much in the same vein as the old Olympics,” argued Dr Carlos.

“I don’t think they have changed their mentality and realised that times have changed.

“Everything is changing around them and eventually they are going to have to realise that if they don’t make the necessary changes the Olympics is going to cave in on them.

“The United States is further down the line in relation to equality and opposition to racism but there is still an awful lot of racism going on.

“There has to be a starting point. People are on the move. You don’t make change instantaneously – it is a process where people become inclusive.”

You can listen to the full interview with Dr John Carlos on BBC Radio Ulster’s ‘Sportsound Meets’ at 14:00 BST on Saturday 31 July or listen live or listen again on BBC Sounds.



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