‘Stern until I die’: A study of the heroic athlete

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In one of the most iconic moments of Olympic history, Silver medalist Peter Norman (left) of Australia, Gold medalist Tommie Smith (center) of the U.S., and American Bronze medalist John Carlos turned the 200 meter dash medal ceremony into a historical statement against injustice.

Consider for a moment two great athletes, John Carlos and Michael Jordan. I place John Carlos’s name first out of respect.

Michael Jordan made history. He still is considered perhaps the greatest basketball player to lace up shoes. He has built a billion dollar endorsement empire with the Nike corporation. He makes more in a year than all of Nike’s Southeast Asian factory workers combined. Yet at his induction into the basketball hall of fame he showed little gratitude, choosing instead diatribe, tearing down former opponents, embarrassing a former high school teammate. At what should have been a celebration he snarled through list of former coaches, teammates, and anyone else who had ever slighted him. Rather than a great champion, he seemed like a drunk best man at a wedding. When asked once why he never used his influence to speak out on social issues, Jordan, who earned a fortune selling overpriced shoes to inner-city black kids, responded, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”

John Carlos made history, too. He won a bronze medal at the Mexico City Olympics. At what should have been his moment of glory and adulation, the completion of one of the greatest 200 meter races in Olympic history, he stepped to the victory stand and threw it all away for one moment of conviction. He was booed and ostracized. He was called a nigger and told to go back to Africa. For years after, he was a pariah. He received death threats. His children were ridiculed at school, their father called a traitor. Friends turned their backs on him. He struggled to find work. Under the weight of harassment and financial strain, Carlos’s wife committed suicide. Carlos has no shoe named after him. He is not wealthy. He has a bronze medal tucked away at his mother’s house, but he says it means nothing to him. However, neither does he carry a list of resentments and grudges to call out from a podium. He says the boos and slurs he heard in Mexico City were to be expected.

“Quite naturally when people don’t understand something the first thing they do is be rebellious toward it,” Carlos said.

At 68 years old John Carlos is an activist for human rights. He still tells the story of that day in Mexico City and it’s aftermath, not with anger, but rather with understanding of it’s worth in the rush of time.

I placed John Carlos’s name first. But the question is, whose story will last?

We hunger for heroes. Often, to no avail, we try to dissuade our children from choosing athletes. They too often disappoint. Lance Armstrong appeared a paragon of courage, persistence and determination until he so cravenly wasn’t. Jordan was breathtaking to behold, an example of grace and nearly murderous determination. But I would never want my sons to emulate someone so unable to forgive the past and so bent on destroying those around him.

Through the fog of history, the black gloves still jut into the Mexican sky. It is hard not feel tension viewing the images of that moment 46 years ago. Watching it on film is breathtaking, the stoic expression of Smith. At the first note of the National Anthem he lifts his right arm with smooth purpose. A breath later, Carlos’s left arm rises, and the two men bow their heads.  The stadium filled with 80,000 people hushes.

As a white child I had heard a particular version of that day and I found the image eerie. Silent, spooky rage. Even the words “Black Power” were scary in a fascinating way. I couldn’t take my eyes off Tommie Smith and John Carlos, angry black men who I imagined striking at any moment, launching a riot.

The Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). That’s what the badges on Carlos and Smith’s chests said, and that’s why they raised their fists. They never proclaimed “Black Power.”

“The right-wing media chose to use that phrase to intimidate, to confuse and to dismay the people,” Carlos recalls, “to say that we had come to revolutionize this situation in the Civil Rights movement, that we were gonna blow up the statue of liberty or we were gonna put fire to America. That was never our aim.”

Sociologist Harry Edwards established the project to protest racial segregation in the U.S. and elsewhere. The organization attempted to stage an Olympic boycott by all African-American athletes unless the following demands were met:

1. The exclusion of Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa from the Games;

2. The removal of International Olympic Committee Chair Avery Brundage;

3. The restoration of Muhammad Ali’s Heavyweight Championship belt; and

4. The hiring of more black coaches.

The boycott largely failed, although Rhodesia and South Africa did not compete in the Games.

Black athletes were encouraged to decide on their own how they would express themselves.

“We felt it was something that was necessary to make a statement to society that all is not well,” Carlos said. “We felt that we needed to do something that would be so shocking and so revealing that it would wake people at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning to question: why would these individuals put their careers, their lives, their futures on the line to make a statement such as this?”

Brundage made it clear in the months leading up to the  games that any athlete who dared make a political statement would face harsh punishment, including immediate expulsion from the Olympics. At a press conference he said, “Don’t think that any of these boys will be foolish enough to demonstrate at the Olympic Games.”

An Olympian himself, he lost the gold to Jim Thorpe, one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. Brundage later stripped the Native America icon of his medals for playing semi-pro baseball for a couple of dollars a game.

It was Brundage who facilitated bringing the Olympics to Hitler’s Nazi Germany in 1936 and saw to the expulsion of two Jewish athletes from those games.

“There was a very good chance that Hitler was never going to get the Olympics,” said Carlos biographer David Zirin.  “There was a rebellion against that happening in the American amateur union in this country.” Brundage flew to Germany, met with Hitler and claimed falsely that he had talked to many Jews who endorsed the dictator and said they were treated well in Germany. Brundage even turned a blind eye to the Nazi salute during the Olympics.

The Olympians entered Mexico City in the wake of the Tlatelolco Massacre, when police and military forces opened fire on student protesters in the streets. It is believed that more than 2,000 students were killed protesting against bringing the Olympics to Mexico City against a backdrop of desperate poverty.

“Those people lost their lives simply because they said, How can you  bring these games here when you aren’t going to help the poor people in the country,” Carlos said.

Largely shielded from the violence of the week before, the athletes continued to train and prepare for competition. For Carlos, the race had become a first act.

“You know, we had to qualify to go to the victory stand,” he said. “That was the most important thing, to get to the victory stand. I think once we decided that we were going to make some sort of statement, the race was secondary in my mind.”

Carlos, an explosive starter, sprinted out to an early lead. In video footage he can be seen looking at Smith and talking.

Carlos recalls the moment: “I looked around the race to tell my partner to ‘Come on, man. Step it up.’ And he did.”

Smith broke the world record in a gold-medal performance. Peter Norman passed the chattering Carlos for the Silver, an Australian record. And Carlos cruised in for an easy Bronze.

Carlos and Smith had planned to wear the gloves on he podium, but Carlos left his in the Olympic village. It was Norman, the silver medalist, who suggested they each wear a single glove. Norman then asked for an OPHR badge for himself. Carlos found one on the chest of a white member of the U.S. rowing team. Smith was hesitant to get Norman mixed up in a U.S. protest for which he and Carlos had received death threats, but Norman insisted. He would later be ostracized by the Australian media and track and field establishment. He would never compete in another Olympic games, despite qualifying numerous times.

“Peter didn’t have to take that button,” Carlos later said. “Peter wasn’t from the United States. Peter was not a black man. Peter didn’t have to feel what I felt. But he was a man.”

Norman’s nephew Matt Norman made a 2008 documentary film, “Salute,” about the events of the 1968 Olympics.

Everything Smith and Carlos wore that day was heavy with meaning. The black gloves symbolized their solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement. The clenched hand symbolized unity, five fingers coming together in one fist.

“This was the first time the Olympics was in color, Technicolor,” Carlo said, “So we wanted there to be no doubt as to who we were representing. We were representing our race first, and then we were representing the United States second.”

Carlos wore beads around his neck to commemorate the victims of lynching throughout the South.  Smith wore a black scarf in memory of Africans who died on slave ships and were cast overboard, lost to history.

“Then I wore a black shirt over my U.S.A. uniform because, to be quite frank, I was ashamed of America for America’s deeds,” Carlos said, “what they were doing in history, as well as what they were doing at that particular time to us for expressing our feelings. This is the land of the free, they told me from grade school. And then, when I got to the victory stand, it appeared that it wasn’t the land of the free.”

The two men took off their shoes, rolled up their pant legs and walked to the stand in black socks to symbolize children living in poverty.

The journey to the podium was heart-pounding. Athletes and coaches had received death threats all week and there were rumors of gunmen in the crowd who would shoot anyone who protested.

It’s unclear if Smith and Carlos truly knew what awaited them as they stepped down from the victory stand.

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John Carlos (left) and Tommie Smith are still telling the story of their polarizing protest at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

The media descended upon them, mostly with derision. Broadcaster Brent Musburger called them “black-skinned stormtroopers.” The L.A. Times said they engaged in a “Nazi-like salute.”

An interviewer from the BBC, immediately after the ceremony, noted that cynics would say Smith and Carlos had everything, publicity, medals, and now martyrdom.

“I can’t eat that, and the kids around my block that grew up with me, they can’t eat it, and the kids that’s going to grow up after them,” Carlos, still in his USA uniform, said. “They can’t eat publicity. They can’t eat gold medals. All we ask for is equal chance to be a human being. And, as far as I see now, we’re five steps below the ladder, and every time we try and touch it, they put their foot on our hands.”

Carlos and Smith were sent home from the games and banned from the Olympics for life. A myth that the two athletes had been stripped of their medals began in their hotel lobby and has survived four decades.

“The medal doesn’t really have any significant value to me. But it might mean everything to my kids,” Carlos said at the time. “I earned this medal… I won this medal. So if you’re coming to get John Carlos’s medal, bring the militia.”

Despite the aftermath of that day, Carlos said he has no regrets.

I never regretted it before after or during,” he declared. “This is something I will be stern on until the day I die.”

When an interviewer noted that his life had been ruined, he responded with indignation: “My life was never ruined! They might have put me on hold, but your life is ruined, man, if you feel defeated, and I felt no defeat.”

Norman once asked a room full of reporters to consider what would have happened had the boycott gone off as planned.

“For a start, I would have been a gold medalist,” he said, drawing laughter. “Had the boycott taken place the opportunity for two heroic young men to stand there and state to the world that things weren’t right never would have occurred.”

Decades later, in stark contrast to iconic stand of Smith, Carlos and Norman, Michael Jordan took his own stand on the Olympic podium as part of America’s Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics. He draped flag over his shoulder to cover the Reebok logo on his official team warmup, because he endorsed Nike. Carlos suspects athletes like Jordan haven’t “grown mentally” to fully understand the potential of their gifts.

“God blessed me with the talent to be a great athlete,” he said. “Yet still he made me realize that I was a man and I had far more going for me than athletic abilities. I chose to use mine to make a better society. It is not up to the oppressor to educate the oppressed, We have to educate ourselves and our own.”

There are sparks of John Carlos and Tommie Smith alive today. Basketball star Steve Nash used his MVP prestige to speak out against Western military involvement in the Middle East. Pro Football players Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe have made gay rights their personal cause.  And Dwayne Wade, star of the NBA’s Miami Heat, recently appeared with his sons on the cover of Ebony magazine wearing hooded sweatshirts in response to George Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict in the killing Treyvon Martin.

Carlos contends that immortality can be found by those who follows the example of the athlete at the center of the attempted boycott, Muhammad Ali.

“(Ali) used his skill to say something about the social ills of society,” Carlos says. “Of course, he was an excellent boxer, but he got up and spoke on the issues. And because he spoke on the issues, he will never die. There will be someone else at some time who can do what Jordan could do. And then his name will just be pushed down in the mud. But they’ll still be talking about Ali.”

Peter Norman, whom Carlos calls his brother and friend,  was not invited by his own nation to be a part of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney Australia. American representatives, shocked that his own country had not done so,  invited Norman to attend with them. Norman was stunned to learn that American sprinter Michael Johnson considered him one of his heroes.  Norman died Oct. 3, 2006 of a heart attack. Both Smith and Carlos gave eulogies and were pallbearers at his funeral. Norman’s time of 20.06 in the 200 meter dash is still the Australian record.

In a 2012 interview, Carlos said, “There’s no one in the nation of Australia that should be honored, recognized, appreciated more than Peter Norman, for his humanitarian concerns, his character, his strength and his willingness to be a sacrificial lamb for justice.”

Black power, indeed.

Bound by one moment of defiance, Tommie Smith (left) and John Carlos carry the coffin of their friend and fellow sprinter Peter Norman in 2006. Smith and Carlos both delivered eulogies at Norman's funeral. Carlos called the Australian a humanitarian and sacrificial lamb for justice.

Bound by one moment of defiance, Tommie Smith (left) and John Carlos carry the coffin of their friend and fellow sprinter Peter Norman in 2006. Smith and Carlos delivered eulogies at Norman’s funeral. Carlos called the Australian a humanitarian and sacrificial lamb for justice.

Sources for this entry include the film “Salute” and interviews by Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now” and Dan Lebatard of  the”Dan Lebatard and Stugotz” radio show. Visit John Carlos’s Web site: http: www.johncarlos68.com

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