#OlympicHistory – The Silent Gesture

The year 1968 was the time of post-civil rights movement. However, the effects of the civilian movement in America were far from resolved. It showed at the Olympics, which was held in Mexico City and what an occasion it was to make a statement sans words. In the aftermath of the men’s 200m finals, the athletes Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos knew the risks when they stood on the podium shoe-less, pants folded. Their raised arms with black gloves pointed towards the sky.

The photographers did their part to freeze that live moment – which remains one of the iconic moments in the Olympic history. The Star Spangled Banner was playing in the background, there was silence from the huge crowd in the stadium and then came the boos, verbal insults and racist comments.

Any Olympic edition is a wonderful illustration of key problems and the sufferings of the host city. In spite of the good work that’s carried out, the skeletons hidden in the closet come to the fore during the Olympics season. Games must go on irrespective of what the earthy ailments as the Olympics tries hard to detach from the civilian issues. The controversy of these two athletes masked the other issues.

If you look closely at the photo, Tommie Smith (middle) appeared firm with his arm erect, displaying his intent during the black power salute. Juan Carlos, on the contrary, looked unsure, however, he went on with the protest. It was an action that could not be taken back. In fact, Juan Carlos forgot his black gloves and hence they shared a glove each (Smith wearing on the right hand, and Carlos on the left hand).

“We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country,”  Carlos said years after that incident in an HBO documentary. ” I don’t like the idea of people looking at it as negative. There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag—not symbolizing a hatred for it.”

The custodians of Olympic movement did not see their points of view. They urged the US Olympic Committee to take strict actions against Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos, which mandated their  suspension and were subsequently ousted from the Olympic village.

In his autobiography, ‘Silent Gesture’, Tommie Smith clarified the protest was a more a Human Rights salute and not a Black Power salute.

A decade later, while working as a track coach at Santa Monica college, Smith said in introspection – “I did what I did because I felt it, not because someone told me to do it. I felt it was my contribution not only to all people, but especially for athletes to let them know they do have a place in life.”

The world focussed on Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos, however the actual silent protester and the support was the silver medalist Peter Norman. The Australian stood solidly with Smith and Carlos and wore a badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights in support of the cause his fellow podium winners believed in.

“I’ll stand with you,” said Norman, who showed no signs of fear with what was about to happen at the medal ceremony. Instead, “I saw love,” is what he had to say about that episode.

Peter Norman too, suffered for his humane actions. He was never selected for the Olympics after the 1968 Games. However, in Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos, he had found friends for life. In 2006, Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral. And six years later, the Australian parliament issued a posthumous apology to Norman and recognised his inspirational role he played towards racial equality.


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