Tommie Smith is humble enough to claim that his Black Power salute was just a ‘silent protest’ or a ‘silent gesture’.
But back in 1968 even he couldn’t have predicted the seismic effect it has had on political demonstrations in sports since then.
The image is so striking that it is a ready reference for any sort of political protest at the Olympics. And the International Olympic Committee (IOC), with its strict protest rules, couldn’t stop the images from attaining iconic proportions.
With enhanced political activism in sports even the IOC has relented for Tokyo 2020, allowing athletes to do peaceful protests before any game or without interrupting the flow of action but limited it to the ground, not allowing it to be stretched to podiums.
Smith believes athletes are human beings and have every right to protest. “It’s going to happen. That’s how we’re going to move forward. I certainly believe that it’s a thought in process, a progression,” Smith told New York Times after the release of a documentary on his life titled “With Drawn Arms”.
“For the I.O.C., the “I” is very important. That’s the international. They’re trying very desperately to keep the cap where they can be in the control. They think that if they lose control, everything is going to go haywire,” he said to NYT.
“They want their conventional efforts that they have right now moving forward, controlling all nations.”
Though Smith hopes that the message conveyed through these ‘controlled’ protests would be as meaningful as his was, be it in any form or style.
“Well, I never threw a rock and hid my hand. Yes, there are differences in different ways that you protest about certain issues. I do believe that some are different than others. Mine was silent. I called it a silent protest or a silent gesture,” Smith told NYT.
The 77-year-old, now a guest lecturer at events, risked his entire career, even at the cost of being labelled an ‘ánti-American’ to follow his heart and urges modern athletes to voice their dissent, irrespective of the repercussions.
“No one could have told me what I was going to do in 1968 that day until a few moments before it happened,” he was quoted as saying by the Washington Post.
No one saw it coming at Mexico City, when Smith and his fellow American John Carlos, who claimed bronze behind Smith, stood at the podium shoeless but wearing black socks. The silver medallist, Australia’s Peter Norman, also empathised with them, sporting an Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badge.
Smith won the 200m gold with a then world record time of 19.83 seconds, and Carlos then raised one of their hands, delivering the salute with heads bowed to the boos from the crowd.
“It was done because of the freedom and justice needed to be seen and heard by athletes who wanted to be a part of a system. And we really weren’t,” Smith told the Washington Post.
“Even on the track, we were discriminated against. I knew … through my faith that there would be a time for me to stand for other people to see the need.”
Unapologetic back then and now, Smith has taken vilification, and being turned into a social pariah, in his stride.
Fifty-three years later, Smith can afford himself a wry smile. Records will be bettered, more 200m gold medallists will emerge but he and John Carlos will forever be associated with the Black Power salute.
That’s their legacy, etched in stone.