This year the Olympics take place in Sydney, Australia. As anyone with a
rudimentary knowledge of British colonial history knows, Australia began as
a penal colony for the British Empire. To make room for its outcasts,
Britain attempted to clear the land of its inhabitants, human and
otherwise. Just as the indigenous Americans were slaughtered and pushed
from their lands, so were the aboriginal peoples on the fifth continent.
Likewise, many of those who survived the various assaults on their lands
and people were "resettled" and their children were stolen. Once stolen,
these innocents were stripped of their cultural identity via adoption and
the white man's educational system, creating what Aboriginals now call the
Over time, a movement demanding an apology and reparations to survivors of
this crime against humanity has gathered steam in Australia. The members
of the movement hope to use the Olympics as a forum for redress of their
grievances-a truly uphill struggle given the general attitude of many in
the Australian government who still don't understand the effects of their
predecessors' policy and absolutely refuse to apologize. As a more cosmic
justice would have it, however, one of Australia's most popular athletes,
Cathy Freeman, is not only an Aboriginal, she is also a strong supporter of
the movement calling for justice to the aboriginal peoples. Although
Aboriginal activists have encouraged her to stay out of the developing
fray, she recently spoke out, saying in an interview that appeared in the
British paper the Sunday Telegraph: "I was so angry because they were
denying they (the Australian government) had done anything wrong, denying
that a whole generation was stolen." The calls for an apology and
reparations are reminiscent of similar calls in this country for an apology
and reparations to the descendants of those enslaved by the whites not so
many generations ago. Likewise, the use of the Olympics as a forum for
redress are reminiscent of the protest by African and African-American
athletes before and during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
The history of black athletes in white America reflects the history of
African-Americans in general. Before the integration of pro sports, blacks
had their own leagues in baseball and basketball. The Negro Baseball
Leagues featured some of the best players in the sport and when the major
leagues finally began to integrate, the Negro Leagues faded as black
players were hired by teams in the majors. Boxing was the first sport to
be infiltrated by blacks--although it too had its own association until the
early 1900s. Jack Johnson was the Black boxing champion when he met the
white boxing champion Tommy Burns in 1908 and beat him.
The discrimination against African-American athletes was even worse in
college athletics. Not only were black athletes prevented from attending
white colleges, they did not compete against their athletic teams very
often either. However, the sixties changed that. Along with integration
came the first wave of African-American athletes playing for previously
all-white college teams. Many of these athletes, like today, were not
courted for their academic ability, but only for their athletic ability.
Still, however, these young men did not get any full scholarships--these
were reserved for white athletes. Also like today, graduation was not
given much priority by the players' coaches or respective athletic
departments. Blacks were forbidden from joining fraternities, subject to
racist remarks and acts by fellow students and teammates, and due to their
very small numbers, pretty much isolated. As Harry Edwards wrote in his
book, The Revolt of the Black Athlete: "The only difference between the
black man shining shoes in the ghetto and the black sprinter is that the
shoeshine man is a nigger and the sprinter is a fast nigger."
As part of an ongoing struggle for just treatment in US collegiate and
other amateur competition, African American athletes and their supporters
begin to consider a boycott of the 1968 Olympics under the auspices of a
new organization called the Olympic Project for Human Rights. World-class
runner Tommie Smith was quoted after some track and field trials early that
year in Japan as stating that "there may be a boycott" when asked by a
Later that spring, Black students and athletes at San Jose State asked for
better treatment. With the tutelage and complete support of Professor
Harry Edwards (also an African-American), they met with the dean of
students who told them to go away since he didn't have time to deal with
such a small number of students (70 out of a total enrollment of 5000).
With this rejection, the students began to plan for a rally on the first
day of classes the next fall. The rally began with only 135 students: 100
or so whites and 35 or so blacks, but by noon close to 700 were in
attendance including faculty and staff. The demands of the rally were
On November 22 and 23rd, a national Black Youth Conference was held in Los
Angeles--several college athletes attended and the boycott was discussed.
UCLA basketball player Kareem Abdul Jabbar (who was still going by the name
his parents had given him, Lew Alcindor) told why he supported the boycott:
Everybody knows me. I'm the big basketball star, the weekend hero,
everybody's All-American. Well, last summer I was almost killed by a
racist cop shooting at a black cat in Harlem. He was shooting on the
street--where masses of black people were standing around or just taking a
walk. After all, we were just niggers. I found out last summer that we
don't catch hell because we aren't basketball stars or don't have money.
We catch hell because we are black. Somewhere each of us has got to make a
stand against this kind of thing. This is how I make my stand--using what
I have. And I take my stand here.
- Public deliberation of all problems and proposed solutions relevant to the
situation of minority gorups at SJS.
- Public pledges that no housing of any kind, including frats and sororities,
will be open to all students wishing to live there.
- That all social and political organizations be open to all students and
that this be proven by spring 1968.
- That all athletic recruits be treated the same in the recruiting process.
- That the athletic dept. disassociate itself from racist fraternities
- That the college provide tutoring to all those who desire it.
- That the student government be representative of all students, not just a
corrupt group of racists.
- There was no response, so the first football game of the 1967 season was
boycotted and picketed by black players and their supporters.
In the weeks following the conference, Tommie Smith made public the
contents of some of the hate mail he had been receiving for his comments
regarding the Olympic boycott. In the meantime, the International Olympic
Committee (IOC) invited the apartheid sports teams of South Africa to the
1968 Olympics, prompting an immediate outcry and an expansion of the
boycott call to include most of the African nations, all of the communist
nations, and many non-aligned countries. Simultaneously, it was revealed
in the press that Avery Brundage, the head of the IOC, was a part owner of
a country club that forbade membership to Jews and blacks. Eventually, the
IOC succumbed to the ever-growing international pressure and rescinded its
invitation to South Africa.
The American athletes vowed to continue the boycott, but it eventually fell
apart--people were thinking of their careers and the harassment and
intimidation was reaching the point where some of the athletes were
receiving threats to their lives and the lives of their loved ones. An
alternative path was decided on: no African-American athlete would take the
victory stand when they won. Only weeks before the Olympics began, Mexican
students took over the National University, supported by thousands of their
countrymen and women. On October 2, ten days before the Games opened,
Mexican security forces opened fire on a rally in the La Plaza de las Tres
Culturas at Tlatelolco in Mexico City, killing hundreds. Although the
harassment and intimidation of athletes supporting the boycott movement was
not even close to the massacre of the students and their supporters, the
intention was the same--to stifle protest. The Olympics almost didn't take
On the first day of the competition two African American runners, Jim Hines
and Charles Greene, won the 100-meter dash. When the two sprinters took
the victory stand, neither man did anything but stand at attention as they
received their medals while the US flag was raised. Then came the
200-meter dash. Tommie Smith took the gold, John Carlos the bronze.
Although they had been intimidated and harassed like the other athletes,
when the US flag began rising up the flagpole and the anthem played, the
two men bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved fists in a black
power salute. The silver medalist was a runner from Australia named Peter
Norman who wore the patch of the Olympic Committee for Human Rights
(OCHR-sponsor of the boycott movement) in solidarity with Smith and Carlos.
Within hours, the two African American men were expelled from the Olympic
Village and were stripped of their medals. This was one of the decade's
simplest and most effective protests. As the games continued, other
athletes from a number of nations protested the treatment of the two in
various ways. The results of the Olympic protest and the movement of black
student athletes changed the world of black athletes in many ways, yet much
remains to be resolved. It's somewhat ironic, although not necessarily
surprising that, as African American athletes make more and more money,
their solidarity with one another and with the rest of the African-American
community seems to diminish.
What were white student and amateur athletes doing? Well, for the most
part, nothing. However there were a few individuals who worked with the
OCHR and spoke out against the war and racism they saw on their campuses.
When they did, they were often benched or kicked off the team. By 1970,
however, these few individuals were joined by whole teams and, in some
cases (like UC Berkeley) virtually the entire student athlete population.
After Nixon invaded Cambodia and many of the nation's colleges and high
schools went on strike, student athletes at UC Berkeley voted to protest en
masse against the invasion. Then, following the murders of students at
Kent and Jackson State later that spring, some teams cancelled workouts,
while most wore black armbands during competitions and issued statements
supporting the student strike as it spread across the land. In the Ivy
Leagues, members of all eight schools' track and field teams issued a
strong statement denouncing the war and the killings of students and the
repression of the black liberation movement. The statement caused the Army
and Navy teams to withdraw from the big springtime event.
By the way, people are currently trying to start a new movement among
athletes. I recently received an email talking about a conference organized
by Sherman Teichman and his 30 students at Tufts University in
Massachusetts, focusing on "Global Games: Sports, Politics and Society."
Teichman hopes to create enough momentum to build what he was informally
calling "Athletes for Social Responsibility," a new kind of organization
for the 21st century to challenge the dominant values and politics of sports.