Olympic history: What is the Black Power Salute?

The Black Power Salute - a single act of unified defiance on October 16, 1968 in the Mexico Olympics is more relevant today than ever. Here's a closer look at one of the most political moments in the history of the Games.

On the podium, Tommie Smith (R) and John Carlos (M) thrusted their black-gloved fists into the air as the national anthem played, a defiant protest against racism in the United States and human rights violations everywhere.   -  AP

Political symbols on the sporting field have taken new forms in recent times as racism and human rights issues and athlete profiles have increasingly intertwined with one another.

The iconic platform of the Olympics has also seen its share of politically significant moments over the years. One of them is the act of defiance that was the Black Power Salute in the 1968 Mexico Summer Games, coming months after the assassination of revered American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.

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What happened

Moments after breaking the 200-metre world record to strike gold, African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos who won the bronze medal, took a somber stand on the podium, also receiving support from their 'white' Australian rival, Peter Norman. That symbol, the image of the trio on the podium would go on to spark international outrage soon after and go down in history as one of the most powerful visuals of protest, especially for the current Black Lives Matter movement.

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The three athletes donned an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge as they took the stage. Smith and Carlos rendered themselves shoe-less with black socks to represent their community's poverty on the podium before doing the 'Black Power Salute' itself - a raised fist that has been a long-standing symbol for African-American rights activists - on their own terms. As the US national anthem echoed in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City, Smith and Carlos lowered their heads with a black-gloved fist raised to the skies while facing their national flag. While Smith conventionally raised his right fist, the third-placed Carlos took to the opposite as both athletes had to share a pair of gloves as suggested by the silver-medallist Norman, deeply empathetic to the cause.

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John Carlos wants to abolish the rule that bans protests at the Olympics and has written to the IOC about the same.   -  Getty Images


The Aftermath

In the tremors that followed, Smith and Carlos were suspended from the US Team and the Olympics Village after a threat put on the entire US contingent by the then American IOC president, Avery Brundage. The constant abuses on return to the US forced Smith and Carlos to move on from their track and field careers to brief stints in professional football before settling in academic avenues.

As for the Australian Norman, a cold shoulder from his native authorities and media did not deter him from qualifying for the 1972 Olympics on numerous occasions. However, he failed to receive a ticket to the Games. Norman quit the sport soon after and his personal life also saw considerable turmoil.

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The single act of unified defiance on October 16, 1968 that made the world take a closer look at America’s universal image and its people has come a long way since. Smith and Carlos were present as pallbearers at Norman's funeral, 38 years later, before the world around them caught up to revere the trio's rooted bond in a few moments that transcended sport.

Athlete gestures and Tokyo 2020

In early 2020, the IOC introduced a bye-law to its much-debated Rule 50 in the Olympic Charter that originally states: “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

The bye-law read: "No form of publicity or propaganda, commercial or otherwise, may appear on persons, on sportswear, accessories or, more generally, on any article of clothing or equipment whatsoever worn or used by all competitors and all other participants. During the Olympic Games, athletes have the opportunity to express their views during press conferences, traditional or digital media, in team meetings or social media channels.”

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The IOC offered to review the rule and has availed more provisions under the same in early July, allowing athletes to demonstrate the Black Power Salute and other gestures of protests while away from the field of play and the podium. Further concessions will also permit athletes to wear apparel with words like ‘peace’, ‘solidarity’, ‘respect’ and ‘equality’ while slogans like 'Black Lives Matter' will remain prohibited.

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