More than 50 years after banning him for his low-key racial injustice protest at the Munich Olympics, the International Olympic Committee says it will allow American gold-medal sprinter Vince Matthews back at the Games.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee was copied in on a letter from the IOC, which said it would allow the 75-year-old Matthews to attend future Olympics. “This is good news, and a long time coming,” USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland said on Monday.
The Americans Matthews and Wayne Collett, both Black men, finished 1-2 in the 400 metres in 1972. While the “Star-Spangled Banner” played during their medals ceremony, Collett stood with his hand on his hips.
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Matthews rubbed his goatee, crossed his arms, and shifted his feet. Four years after Tommie Smith and John Carlos had raised their fists defiantly during their own medals ceremony in Mexico City, Matthews twirled his medal as he stepped off the podium. Fans booed and whistled as he and Collett, who died in 2010, headed for the tunnel.
Then-IOC president Avery Brundage, himself an American, removed the sprinters from the Olympics for life: “The whole world saw the disgusting display of your two athletes when they received their gold and silver medals for the 400-metre event yesterday,” he wrote to the USOC.
The day after the ceremony, the athletes explained why they did what they did. “For maybe six or seven years, I’ve stood at attention while the anthem has been played out, but I just can’t do it with a clear conscience anymore the way things are in our country,” Collett said.
“People are standing at attention and they want you to stand at attention, too, and forget the things around you. It’s impossible,” he said.
Matthews has consistently turned down interviews over the years and did not respond to an email sent by The Associated Press. In an email exchange with nbcsports.com reporter Tim Layden, who wrote an extensive feature on the 1972 Summer Olympics, Matthews said: “My Olympic participation ended almost 50 years ago. Over the years, I have made a concerted effort to move with an eye toward the future. I live by the following quote: `When looking back doesn’t interest you anymore, you’re doing the right thing.’ At this point in my life, the right thing is looking/moving forward and not looking backward.” Hirshland said the USOPC had not been in contact with Matthews since the letter was sent.
It took the Olympics some 50 years to accept Smith and Carlos back into the fold after their iconic gestures. But no amends were attempted for Matthews and Collett, whose victory came one day after the terrorist attacks that marred the Munich Games. The sprinters raced that day in a subdued, quiet stadium after a Palestinian terror group killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team hours earlier.
Brian Lewis, an Olympic leader from Trinidad and Tobago, was key in keeping the topic alive and in front of the IOC. He received word from the IOC of Matthews’ reinstatement, and shortly afterward, tweeted that the move was a “positive step.”