Chances are that if you’re reading this, you have at least a passing understanding of the two references that comprise the name of this site. The bent knee, obviously, is a nod to Colin Kaepernick, whose peaceful protest bringing attention to police violence against the African-American community has become one of the most iconic symbols in the ongoing struggle. While he remains unsigned by any NFL squad, a reality that will likely remain true for the remainder of his viable playing career, Kaepernick made headlines just this week when he denounced the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. His voice has become one that demands to be heard.
We have written about Kaepernick, at least in passing, multiple times on the site. However, we have not yet addressed the other reference in our name. The raised fists are, of course, an allusion to the indelible moment in the 1968 Olympics when John Carlos and Tommie Smith lowered their heads and raised their fists in the air in their attempt to bring attention to human rights abuses around the globe. The image is one of the most lasting in Olympics lore and, as NPR reporter Michel Martin put in 2011, “to this day there are college students with a poster [of that moment] on their wall.”
That piece of history has been revived in the headlines because of the recent announcement from the International Olympics Committee that athletes participating in the 2020 Summer Olympics, taking place this upcoming July and August in Tokyo, are forbidden from “gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling.” They are also not allowed to display any form of political messaging, including signs and armbands. They are to limit expressions of a political nature to interviews, team meetings and social media.
For the “stick to sports” crowd, this news was met with celebration. For the rest of us, including myself, the announcement was received with no small amount of frustration. Beyond the myopic view of one’s own existence (the Olympics are literally a series of feats of strength between nations, the results of which are often used for nationalistic propaganda), it is an astounding suppression of free expression which, in the same statement, the IOC claims to “fully support.” Perhaps the only silver lining to the IOC making their declaration is that they did it in January, giving any politically-minded athletes plenty of time to lawyer up.
The historical moment when Carlos and Smith made their gesture, October 16, 1968, was one of the most volatile in the story of the modern world. In the United States, the previous six months had witnessed the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. The Vietnam War continued to rage on, with the Tet Offensive concluding just one month prior. Earlier in the year Czechoslovakia had briefly flirted with liberal reform, a movement that came to be known as the “Prague Spring,” before the Soviet Union rolled through in August and, with an iron fist, reinstated communist rule.
The Olympics themselves were a flashpoint of violence when on October 2nd hundreds of unarmed civilians were murdered by Mexican-government employed snipers in the Tlatelolco Massacre. The shootings came in response to a series of student-led protests of the Games, which cost the Mexican government $150 million to stage, the equivalent of over $1 billion in 2019. The manifesto of the protestors was aimed at gaining the most basic of civil liberties, including free speech, an end to state sanctioned violence (including abuses by both police and the military), and a larger voice in the national government. While Mexico had ostensibly had a democratic constitution since 1917, a series of corrupt former-military Presidents, as well as the singular dominance of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, gave it all the appearances of a dictatorship.
This was the turbulence that Carlos, Smith, and the 1,029 other athletes participating in the Games that year confronted when they arrived in Mexico. After the killings, there were many who called for the Games to be suspended, including a swelling movement among African-Americans, led by sociologist Harry Edwards, to boycott them. Ultimately, the athletes, some of whom had trained almost their whole lives for that moment, were unwilling to lose their chance on the world stage and the boycott never happened. So, Carlos and Smith, who, like Edwards previously, were both students at San Jose State University, made their plan to enact their silent protest as they appeared on the medal podium for the 200-meter sprint.
The public reaction was swift and mostly negative. In the ensuing years, both Carlos and Smith stated that their intention was to bring awareness to human rights abuses around the world. They, along with second-place sprinter, Australian Peter Norman, also wore badges representing the Olympic Project for Human Rights, the organization Edwards formed to push for the boycott. However, the gesture was also widely associated with the Black Power movement in the United States, epitomized in the American consciousness by activist Stokely Carmichael. The movement was so feared by the American establishment that less than a year after the 1968 Olympics, Carmichael fled to Ghana and changed his name to Kwame Ture after it was discovered that he had been targeted for assassination as a part of the FBI’s nefarious COINTELPRO.
The association with Black Power automatically skewed public perception of the gesture and made Carlos and Smith targets for criticism and even death threats. Their own teammates distanced themselves, with one telling reporters that they had come to Mexico City “for sport not blood and politics,” a dark irony considering literal blood had already been spilled for the Games. They were immediately suspended from the team. IOC officials were furious, claiming that the two had violated “the basic standards of sportsmanship and good manners,” and they swore to evict both athletes from the Olympic Village, a threat that the organization lacked the authority to actually enact. There were also cries for the revocation of their medals. For many years, a myth persisted that the IOC had done just that, though it was unfounded.
Even as the politics of America evolved, and the two men became heroic symbols, they remained pariahs to U.S. Olympic authorities. That seemingly changed this past November when Carlos and Smith were inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs. Their citations state that they “courageously” took a stand for racial equality. The belated official recognition of their actions in the United States makes the IOC’s recent announcement, forbidding a similar gesture, simultaneously absurd and predictable. The message, that recognizing the importance of public protest is only acceptable after enough time has passed, is a familiar refrain for many Black activists.
The IOC has long maintained that the Olympics are intended to be divorced from politics, despite the fact that the governing body has not shied away from making its own political statements. South Africa was banned from the Games from 1964 until 1992 because of their apartheid government. In 1976, the IOC attempted to enforce their own verdict in the identity struggle between Taiwan and China by banning Taiwan when they attempted to participate under the name the Republic of China. The Committee had also made waves decades earlier when, in 1924, they voted to admit female athletes, a decision that France, Japan, Turkey and the United States opposed. As recently as 2012, they threatened to ban Saudi Arabia if they did not start sending female athletes to the Games.
For many though, it is the individual acts of political courage that remain in the public consciousness. Perhaps the most famous of these occurred when Jesse Owens challenged Adolf Hitler’s claims of Aryan racial superiority at the 1936 Games in Berlin. Owens won four gold medals, embarrassing Hitler and staking the claim to the most significant moment in Olympics history. Owens was not alone, however. Eighteen African-American athletes were on the U.S. team that year. In fact, to some extent it was those very athletes that made the Games even possible for their fellow Americans. The United States had been considering boycotting the Games and it wasn’t until officials received letters written by Owens and four other Black athletes, urging the American Olympic Committee to let them compete, that the U.S. ultimately decided to participate.
It was widely reported at the time that Hitler snubbed Owens, refusing to shake his hand. In fact, Hitler did not single out Owens, but only met with German gold medalists on that first day of the Games, a breach of etiquette which brought him a reprimand from the IOC. For the remainder of the Olympics, Hitler met with none of the athletes. A greater sting to Owens actually came from U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, who chose to only invite white athletes to meet with him in 1936 after the Games had concluded. Black athletes from that historic team were not celebrated in the White House until 2016, when Barack Obama invited their surviving families for a celebration in their honor.
In a twist of fate, Owens would play a role in the drama of Carlos and Smith, in 1968. When IOC President Avery Brundage, the only American to ever head the organization and a man many considered to be racist, caught wind of the planned protest he enlisted the unlikely aid of the 55-year-old legend. Owens, who was caught in the dual worlds of respect for Olympic tradition as well as a fundamental belief in the righteousness of the message, agreed to meet with them. He attempted to dissuade them from their action, telling them that the struggle “needed more time. Things would change.” Carlos responded by saying that time had run out. When asked about the moment afterwards, Owens unenthusiastically responded that he was “happy they got it over with. They fulfilled a promise they made to themselves before they arrived. It could’ve been a lot worse.”
Thirty-two years earlier, when detailing Owens’s feats, scribe Claude Horn commented, “They put forth this hooey that the Olympics are for welding nations closer together, to make them all a big family. But as a real matter of fact the thing is arranged as the biggest test of every four years. There is a war in the hearts of the committees, [and] in the hearts of some competitors.” Continuing to deny this fundamental truth, all while openly making their own political statements, only further serves to highlight the hypocrisy and foolishness of the IOC. Considering they have spent the better part of the last two decades rocked by one corruption scandal after another, including evidence of malfeasance in Tokyo’s selection as the host nation this year, the least the Committee can do is not add the sin of silencing free expression. To do so potentially robs us of another historic moment that will long outlive the forgettable numbers of a medal count.
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