Race relations at the Games

Image of Peter Aspden

An indelible image from the Mexico Olympic Games of October 1968 has remained a landmark in the struggle for civil rights in the US. When the African-Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos came first and third respectively in the 200m final, they decided to use the victory ceremony as a forum for protest. Their dress was already elaborately coded to convey their message: they wore black socks, Smith added a black scarf, and Carlos a necklace of beads, for all the victims of racial crime “that no one said a prayer for”.

They were also intending to wear black gloves, but Carlos had forgotten his. A short, modest, white Australian man had a bright idea amid the backstage mayhem: on the podium, they could wear one glove each. Peter Norman, who had snatched the silver medal in the race with a lifetime best run, sympathised with the cause of Smith and Carlos. He can be seen in the famous picture of the protest, looking into the middle distance while the two Americans stand with heads bowed and fists thrust into the thin air. Only a small white badge gives his feelings away, proclaiming his support for the “Olympic Project for Human Rights”.

The Black Power protest, as it became known, had calamitous consequences. Smith and Carlos were ejected from the Games and handed lifetime Olympic bans.

It is one of my earliest sporting memories. I was 10, and didn’t really understand the gravity of the occasion, but remember feeling a proto-adolescent moment of anxiety, as if something was not quite right with the world.

Peter Norman would have agreed with me. For having the temerity to wear that badge, he too was punished by his national Olympic committee. A new documentary film, Salute, made by Norman’s nephew Matt and released next week, tells of the further repercussions. The Australians had still not got over the badge a full four years later: Norman was not picked for the sprints for the Munich Olympics despite being the country’s outstanding performer. How about 32 years later? Nope: Norman received no official invitation to attend the Sydney Olympics of 2000, until the US team stepped in to have him as their own guest. Smith and Carlos never forgot Norman’s act of solidarity, however. The three men remained lifelong friends and the Americans acted as pallbearers at Norman’s funeral in 2006.

The story of the Mexico salute is a powerful and moving Olympic story. But it is not one that casts the Olympics in a noble light. It shows the dark side of the Games, where the obsession for control and protocol becomes overriding, at the expense of the kind of resonant human story that it would normally thrust into our faces.

This, I think, explains much of the grumpiness around the modern Olympic Games. Amid the avalanche of against-the-odds narratives on one individual’s battle to extend his or her pole vault by half a centimetre, the wider picture is lost, and the judgment of the Olympic establishment seen to be questionable. The International Olympic Committee president in 1968 was the odious Avery Brundage, who had been an enthusiastic supporter of the Berlin Games in 1936, and who would later insist that the Munich Games of 1972 should continue following the shocking murder of 11 Israeli athletes by terrorists.

The Olympic ideal, proclaiming the values of peace and brotherhood, is of course a flimsy bat with which to confront the devilish curve-balls of political life. But that doesn’t mean it should stand apart from them. How about using the Games as a time for dispassionate reflection on the state of the world, as well as practice for cheerleading?

That is something that could have added spice to the otherwise laudable Cultural Olympiad in London. The range of arts activities on offer in the capital this summer is commendable (although many of them would have occurred anyway in a normal summer). But I wish it had had the courage to address, or at least tickle, the dark underbelly of Olympism.

There are the wholesome Olympic stories, and there are the maverick ones. One little show I am looking forward to seeing is Tracksuit Traitors at the German Historical Institute, also opening next week, which takes a look at the flight of elite athletes from the German Democratic Republic, a country that regularly abused the Games by pumping drug-addled athletes on to its un-level playing fields. What an art exhibition that might have made: Faster, Higher, Stronger. But Especially Higher.

There are other themes that promote disquiet about the Olympic movement. Corporate sponsorship and branding, for instance. As a sports nut, I have travelled far and expensively to watch the Games in the past. But no world record I have witnessed has astonished me more than being almost refused entry at a table-tennis match in Athens because I was wearing a shirt with a logo from a non-sponsoring sports manufacturer.

I could have done with more discussion of these issues from our artists and writers in London’s Cultural Olympiad. London is a city steeped in tradition; but it is also full of cynics, decriers and maverick thinkers. It would have been good to see them sneak on to their own rostrums in the coming weeks.


More columns at www.ft.com/aspden

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