As “The Star Spangled Banner” played, tension spread through their arms and into their clenched, black-gloved fists. Tommie Smith and John Carlos wanted the world to know America’s great flaw.
But it wasn’t the stiffness in the hands of the gold and bronze medalists that propelled the American sprinters to the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. It was Relaxation.
Her San Jose State coach, Bud Winter, cultivated a new sprinting technique. No more tight jaws. No more clenched fists. Instead, open your palms. A gentle walk. A soft face for optimal speed.
The collapse of Winter’s running revolution launches “Legacy of Speed,” a new podcast from Malcolm Gladwell, a New York Times bestselling author. Inspired by the iconic photo of Smith and Carlos at the 1968 Games, the podcast examines San Jose’s rise as a “speed city” and the background of the sprinters’ protest after their 200-meter dash.
“It’s that moment of activism and protest that absolutely stunned the world,” Gladwell said. “And we wanted to understand what happened, how it happened… and what was the reverberation of that act?”
Winter’s technique helped the San Jose State sprinters rank among the best in the world.
Radical changes came from San Jose, which was dubbed Speed City. The International Olympic Committee objected to this.
During the 1968 Olympics, IOC President Avery Brundage was widely known as a racist and anti-Semite. Brundage gave the go-ahead for the 1936 Olympics to be held in Berlin, despite Nazi rule in Germany.
Years later, Brundage and the IOC wanted to invite white supremacist regimes from South Africa and Rhodesia to the Games. They also urged amateurishness, stressing that athletes should perform out of sheer love of the sport and without monetary compensation.
Winter had limited scholarships available, so many of his athletes, recruited largely from inner-city neighborhoods in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, had difficulty eating out in the racism-ridden city.
“Amateurism back then meant that the athlete had to turn a blind eye to everything that was going on in society,” Gladwell said. “For this group of guys, Carlos and Smith and Harry Edwards, it just didn’t make sense. … You’re supposed to go to the Olympics, perform in front of the whole world, and suddenly you’re not supposed to talk about what it’s like to be black in America?”
Smith and Carlos refused. Edwards, a discus thrower at San Jose State in the 1960’s, was the architect behind their Black Power Salute. He has since focused on promoting athlete activism, most recently mentoring Colin Kaepernick.
Gladwell’s podcast comes at a time when athlete activism is on the rise. Dozens have followed Smith and Carlos’ lead. Dozens want to silence them. The IOC still has guidelines to limit athlete protests.
Ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter stated that the Committee will not allow “demonstrations or political, religious or racial propaganda” “in any Olympic site, venue or other area”. The rule has since been amended to allow athletes to speak out at press conferences, mixed zones, interviews or before competitions. Last year, dozens of athletes and organizations signed an open letter calling for Rule 50 to be banned.
“You have a kind of barely suppressed contempt for an athlete,” Gladwell said. “They think if you’re someone who uses your muscles, then you can’t be someone who also uses your brain.”
Smith and Carlos were banned from the Games after Brundage threatened to ban the entire US track and field team if they weren’t removed. They were criticized at home and received death threats.
Peter Norman, the Australian silver medalist, did not raise his fist but wore a human rights badge in solidarity with the Americans. The Australian Olympic authorities barred him from playing any further games in 1972, despite his qualifying times.
“It’s a tiny example of just how much depth, complexity and intricacy there is in this image,” Gladwell said.
Gladwell doesn’t understand why anyone could react so negatively to an athlete who gives up their fame.
“There remains this kind of extraordinary anxiety about what protests are doing to America’s self-esteem,” Gladwell said. “Why would anyone reach out to talk about a much more important issue of how society is treating its own, why should that make us afraid or angry?”
https://www.latimes.com/sports/story/2022-07-17/track-protest-podcast Malcolm Gladwell podcast examines iconic 1968 Olympic protest