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Photo Credit/Zach Morgenstern

This Monday, John Carlos, the bronze medal winner in the 1968 Mexico Olympics spoke at Innis College in an event that discussed how racism manifests itself and also paid tribute to Carlos’ life long friend, Australian 200m silver-medalist Peter Norman.

 

Carlos is best known for what he did after winning his medal. He, and fellow African-American, gold-medalist Tommie Smith, upon receiving their medals, performed the black power salute on the podium. They also removed their shoes to symbolize the African-American struggle with poverty. Smith and Carlos were sent home and banned from the Olympics, despite initial protests from their coach, at the behest of IOC president and suspected anti-semite Avery Brundage.

 

At Monday’s event, Carlos discussed his discovery of racism. He recalled being a young child and watching a white-dominated fire department carelessly tear up furniture throughout a Harlem apartment in response to a false alarm. Even from that young age he saw racism where it was not explicitly declared in the form of white dominated institutions and African-American poverty. He told the audience his hero was Robin Hood, and after his parents told him they could not afford to provide food for his starving friends, he took to stealing supplies from freight trains to help those in need.

 

Carlos, of course, faced explicit discrimination as well. He told another story about seeing a white guy getting beaten up. When he tried to break up the fight the white victim called him a racial slur.

 

With this background, and in the context of 1960s American racial tension, Carlos, inspired by academic activist-academic Harry Edwards, joined other black athletes in considering boycotting the 1968 Olympics, based on the principle that white racists should not get the benefit of seeing black talent. This decision was reversed, however, as Carlos and others felt the Olympics was one of few platforms for black athletes to express their dissatisfaction with the state of America. Individual athletes were encouraged to chose their own form of protest, and Smith and Carlos chose the black power fist. Carlos emphasized that the fist was not a symbol of aggression but a symbol of solidarity, as each finger that unites in the fist is symbolic of a different racialized group.

 

At the end of his talk Carlos took questions. He argued that modern athletes are like racehorses fitted with blinders, taught to think only about their glory as individuals and not about the plight that even their own family members face as racialized individuals.  While he was no doubt encouraged by recent displays in which a number of basketball and football players wore “I can’t breathe” shirts in solidarity with Eric Garner, he called for athletes to make more of an effort to express support for womens’ issues, such as challenging domestic violence.

 

Carlos’ talk was followed by a screening of the 2008 documentary Salute, which honors the late Peter Norman. Norman was raised by poor Salvation Army members, who raised him to rise above the racism that was rampant in his Australian homeland. In the 1968 olympics, Norman agreed to be an ally with Smith and Carlos by requesting to wear an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge when he stepped on the podium. For this small gesture, Norman received flack in Australia that Carlos deemed comparable to what he and Smith received in America. Despite holding the Australian record in the 200m dash to this day, Norman was never given the chance to compete for Australia in the Olympics again, despite the fact that no other runner was qualified to take his place in 1972 ( Australia subsequently sent no one).

 

Of course, a lot of whites in 1968 were not Peter Norman. A white Olympian featured in Salute, says (in a cringe-worthy moment) what a shame it was that Smith and Carlos protested, as it ruined their chance to become famous athletes. The reaction Carlos got at Innis College and elsewhere of course suggests otherwise. Carlos will be remembered for fighting for a cause far more important than medals, but, as shown by the boy in the crowd who asked Carlos how he became a great athlete, his athletics have clearly not been forgotten either.

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