It was 50 Years Ago Today
That the traditional gift for a 50th anniversary is gold is fitting, because that is exactly what Tommie Smith got on October 16, 1968. The first sprinter to break the 20-second mark for the 200m, Smith’s race was one for the ages, holding off teammate John Carlos and Australian Peter Norman to stand at the top of the podium.
Of course, that race, that record, is rarely what we still talk about.
My first book, Not the Triumph but the Struggle: the 1968 Olympic Games and the Making of the Black Athlete, looked to contextualize the historic medal ceremony that followed Smith’s record, situating it within civil rights history, not sports history, and giving context to the organization behind it, the Olympic Project for Human Rights. It was a book that looked to show how sports are constantly doing one of two things: bringing people together, or pushing people apart. It argued that sports can’t be a simple narrative of good or bad, but rather needed big looks, complicated and nuanced takes, that show not why sports matter or that sports matter but how sports matter.
One of the biggest hurdles about studying sports is that which makes them so important: they are everywhere. They saturate our lives, our universe, making it sometimes overwhelming to create a context in which to think about sports without knee-jerk reactions. The 1968 Olympics prove the point over and over again every time someone burns a pair of Nikes (are we over that yet?) or proclaims that he or she is done with the NFL.
How, I often think, are we still having these conversations, especially as the rebels of yesterday are welcomed once again? We aren't just observing the 50th anniversary -- we are celebrating it. Just as Muhammad Ali was brought back into the fold in 1996 to light the Olympic cauldron in Atlanta, Tommie and John, once thrown out of the Olympic Village and sent home by the USOC for their black power action, have been to the White House, are immortalized on the campus of San Jose State – “Speed City” – and play a prominent part in the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington D.C. They are patriots now, exemplars of freedom of speech and historic battles for freedom.
But amnesia persists. A journalist asked me just yesterday “what if” the black athletes had boycotted in 1968 – would it have mattered as much as those black-gloved fists in the air? Historians usually don’t like to answer such questions of speculation. But I think the likes of Kaepernick and Eric Reid and Ariyana Smith and the 2015 University of Missouri football squad and so many others give us some insight, as do the sixteen West Point graduating cadets two years ago or, reaching back a bit more, Mahmoud Abdul Rauf.
Protest is, to be sure, powerful. But its power fades, meaning that the same shock ("Athletes with opinions? How dare they! So ungrateful!) and awe and disgust greets the next one.
Protest scrutinizes the role of the individual within a social movement. Boycotts are made with the many. Protests are made by the few, with consequences that have to be considered. Sometimes it means raising a fist. Other times, it means wielding the power earned as an elite athlete, whether it is LeBron donning an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt or Simon Biles criticizing the head of USA Gymnastics for blacking out the Nike swoosh on her golf shoes.
Fifty years. History doesn’t really repeat itself. Rather, it is a constant, ebbing and flowing, with change never quite equating to progress. I am grateful for the longevity of Not the Triumph but the Struggle. I am grateful to all of the students, from 8th grade to dissertation, who consistently reach out to talk about it. I am grateful to those who still teach it. I am grateful that the conversation continues. Because for the past fifty and the next fifty, the song remains the same.