How Far We’ve Come… Or Have Not Come

On the morning of October 16, 1968,[2] American athlete Smith won the 200 metre race in a then-world-record time of 19.83 seconds, with Australia’s Peter Norman second with a time of 20.06 seconds, and American Carlos in third place with a time of 20.10 seconds. After the race was completed, the three went to collect their medals at the podium. The two American athletes received their medals shoeless, but wearing black socks, to represent black poverty.[3] Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride.[3] Carlos wore beads which he described “were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage.”[4] All three athletes wore Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges, after Norman expressed sympathy with their ideals. Sociologist Harry Edwards, the founder of the OPHR, had urged black athletes to boycott the games; reportedly, the actions of Smith and Carlos on October 16, 1968,[2] were inspired by Edwards’ arguments.[5]

Both Americans intended on bringing black gloves to the event, but Carlos forgot his, leaving them in the Olympic Village. It was the Australian, Peter Norman, who suggested Carlos wear Smith’s left-handed glove, this being the reason behind him raising his left hand, as opposed to his right, differing from the traditional Black Power salute.[6] When “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, Smith and Carlos delivered the salute with heads bowed, a gesture which became front page news around the world. As they left the podium they were booed by the crowd.[7] Smith later said “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”

As a result of their actions, Tommy Smith and John Carlos were ostracized. They were removed from the American Olympic team and not allowed to continue to compete. The predominately white sporting community was outraged by their actions. It took these men the majority of their adult lives to overcome the effects of their actions that day. It was a sacrifice they were willing to make in order to stand up for what they believed in.

Forty years later how far have we come. Early this year NBA star Kobe Bryant released a Public Service Announcement concerning the atrocities that are taking place in the Darfur region of the Sudan. It is known that the Chinese Government has been supporting the violence there both economically and through the sale of weapons.

Upon arriving in China for the Summer Olympics, Bryant was asked what he feels about being in China, knowing that they support the very violence that he spoke out about previously. Bryant’s response, as well as that of LeBron James and others was that he was there to play basketball not be an international diplomat.

On the surface this would appear to be nothing more than a typical response to a hot button question. I by no means intend to place the responsibility on Kobe. He is free to do what he likes. I just find it coincidental that Bryant does not want to ruffle any feathers in China now, knowing that he is on a national stage there right now, seeing as China represents a significant portion of the worlds population and is the next frontier of the NBA and it’s international superstars.

Those are a lot of jerseys that wont be sold if Bryant, James, or anyone else stands up and speaks out about what is taking place in Africa, as U.S Olympian Joey Cheek did, which resulted in him loosing his Visa and not being permitted to compete. Something that is so quickly forgotten when the games begin and there are sports to watch.

I hold my athletes to a high standard and maybe that is unfair. I am choosing not to watch these games and that is a choice that I am making. But I have seen athletes stand for something, and sacrifice for something.

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