London Olympics 2012

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The Black Power salute

ESPN staff
August 2, 2012
Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos made a powerful statement in Mexico City © Getty Images
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As iconic, silent protests goes, this one takes some beating. Black Power was thrust onto the agenda as Tommie Smith and John Carlos showed a quiet dignity while nevertheless sending out a clear message that needed hearing.

The world certainly took notice as it became front-page news around the globe and raised awareness for the cause - although it also raised a substantial backlash back in the United States.

Smith, the gold medallist, and third-placed Carlos, stood on the podium and each raised a hand enveloped in a black glove with their heads bowed as the 'Star Spangled Banner' played over the tannoy in Mexico.

Smith was happy to explain his actions afterwards, complaining: "If I win, I am an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say 'a Negro'. We are black and we are proud of being black."

There was symbolism, Smith would reveal, in his carefully planned visual statement. He wore a black scarf to represent black pride and black socks with no shoes to signify poverty for those back home in the States. Carlos' right fist recognised black unity; Smith's black power. Beads were worn to apparently highlight the lynchings that were still taking place across the country.

This was a choreographed moment, discussed in the hours before the ceremony and instigated by the militant black student group the sprint duo belonged to which was, refreshingly, supported by some white colleagues as well.

The jeers from the crowd were the least of the pair's worries. Smith openly feared an assassination attempt, conceding: "I was concerned but it didn't bother me to a point where I was not going to do it."

This was the scary backdrop to the iconic moment.

"We wanted the world to know that people [back home] were still walking back and forth in poverty without even the necessary clothes to live," stated Carlos, who reportedly saw himself as a latter-day Robin Hood growing up in Harlem, stealing to feed and clothe the poor. "We were trying to wake the country up and wake the world up too."

The American sprinters were team-mates at Stan Jose State College and friends, even if they were competing for glory on the track. A body called the Olympic Project for Human Rights, helped set up by Carlos, had promoted a boycott for all African-American athletes in 1968.

"A protest was in my head the whole year," admitted Carlos. "We first tried to have a boycott but not everyone was down with that plan. A lot of athletes thought that winning medals would supercede or protect them from racism. But, even if you won the medal, it ain't going to save your momma.

"They called it Black Power.
I called it [a] cry for freedom"

- Tommie Smith

"I'm not saying they didn't have the right to follow their dreams but, to me, the medal was nothing but the carrot on a stick."

The 200 metres final was a secondary event, that's for certain, even though Smith, who regularly broke world records, was a formidable athlete and lowered the world's best time once again as he took the tape at 19.83 secibds. His single symbolic gesture afterwards said more than his remarkable on-track feats ever could.

The pair may have been expelled from the Olympic village and ordered to leave Mexico City but the statement had been made. Political issues had been raised at the Olympic Games, "violating this universally accepted principle" according to the IOC.

Carlos was rightly unrepentant. "If something is broke, I think every man, woman and child should step up to the plate and try to have this thing fixed," he insisted.

"They called it Black Power," said Smith much later. "I called it human power or cry for freedom."

What happened next?
Both men faced death threats on their return to the States and it was some time before they were properly acclaimed for their part in raising the issue of racial equality. Smith played American football for the Cincinnati Bengals between 1969 and 1971 while Carlos represented the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2005, a bronze statue of the duo was built at San Jose State University.

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