“‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ is the motto of the Olympic Games. ‘Angrier, nastier, uglier’ better describes the scene in Mexico City last week,” wrote Time Magazine, which went onto call it “petty” and “petulant”. Boxer George Foreman dismissed it as “That’s for college kids.” Brent Musburger called them “black-skinned storm troopers”. “The Soviet Union never has used the Olympic Games for propaganda purposes,” came a statement from Moscow.
Forty years on, the raised clenched fists of American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won first and third places respectively in 1968 Olympic Games remain controversial. The protest photos were now inevitably labeled “black power” instead of “civil rights” Inside the arena in Mexico City the event passed quite unnoticed, but the newspaper photos reprinted in the next few days spread the debate.
Most famous of these photos was the one distributed by AP, taken by John Dominis, in which ironically, the viewer could not really make out the black socks two runners wore nor that they were shoeless — both acts meant to represent black poverty. Carlos’ beads, symbolizing black lynchings, however, were prominent. They shared right and left hands of the same pair of gloves because Carlos had forgotten his pair at the Olympic village.
Pressured by the International Olympic Committee which frown upon such displays of political statements (and which back then was ironically headed by an American named Avery Brundage who had been a Nazi sympathizer in his day), the American Team sent the pair packing home. The US cynically allowed them to retain their medals so they could count against the Russians on the final scoreboard. The silver medalist Peter Norman (Australia) who joined in the protest with a Human Rights badge on his track suit was also ostracized on his return home.
As for Smith and Carlos, they are now estranged, each claiming he was the mastermind behind the protest. Carlos went so far as to state that he let Smith win.