Groundhog Day for Sports:

IOC On the Wrong Side of History, Yet Again

The International Olympic Committee has taken a giant step backward — all the way to 1968.

That’s when Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos were expelled from the Mexico City Summer Games after they each raised a fist in a human rights salute during the playing of the on the winners’ podium.

Smith and Carlos had just captured the gold and bronze, respectively, in the 200-meter race, and their provocative gesture called attention to the human rights abuses suffered by Black Americans. They didn’t fight, didn’t curse, didn’t shoot anybody nor rob any shoe stores — just like most White Americans ask us to do: They played “nice.”

John Carlos, the bronze medalist who famously protested at the 1968 Olympic Games, spoke out against the recent ban. (Photo: Bettmann Archive via Getty)

In 2021 those human rights abuses continue, and the protests against them have spread into the mainstream through the Black Lives Matter movement, first in the United States and then the rest of the world. People have taken to the streets and on social media to demand accountability for police aggression and other abuses against Black and other BIPOC populations. White people are taking to the streets also, which might be bad for the business of White supremacy. But it is about time White Americans got off the sidelines and into the game. (After all, this is American history, not simply ‘Black’ history.)

But nobody wants to be reminded of human rights abuses during the middle of sports. We’re supposed to be having “fun!”

There are tee-shirts and hats and jackets to be sold with the official Olympic logo — and all those trucks and beer and burgers to buy. Nobody wants a stain on their Olympic gear, and nobody wants indigestion from a sprinkling of social justice in their french fries.

The threats of a Smith-and-Carlos-style protests at the upcoming Tokyo Games are real, and the IOC recently reacted by announcing it will uphold its ban on protests and punish any athletes participating in any “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda,” as stated in its charter.

In other words, “Practice . . . then run, jump, throw or swim your way back to where you came from. You are a number. A replaceable part. You do not have a voice.” Or rather, “We choose to silence your voice.”

The IOC is policing these athletes in 2021, Black and otherwise, just as it had done with Smith and Carlos more than 50 years ago. Just as the NFL does, and how American society does. Shoot first, ask questions later.

In 1968, because of the IOC’s punitive actions against them, the track athletes returned to the United States to be ostracized, threatened, and blacklisted from working. Carlos and sports sociologist Harry Edwards had their dogs butchered by unknown terrorists. Carlos’ wife committed suicide.

It would take decades before their defiant stance in Mexico would be considered heroic. In 2005, their alma mater, San Jose State University, a place I currently teach, erected a statue of their podium protest. Three years later, the pair would be the recipient of the ESPY’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Smith and Carlos, like Muhammad Ali before them and Colin Kaepernick afterward, are now looked upon as Civil Rights icons.

History has a way of righting the wrongs of the past. Clearly, the IOC is again on the wrong side of history. Every modern Olympic Games since 1896 has been fraught with protests and negotiations and boycotts. I teach the history of the Modern Olympic Movement, which began in 1896. Back then, Pierre de Coubertin insisted women had “no place” in the Olympic games. It is a good thing that women (and non-hypocritical men) protested this slap in the face.

The USA boycotted the Olympic games in 1980. Yes we did. Russia and others returned the favor by boycotting the Los Angeles Olympic games in 1984. The Olympic movement nearly died. ‘We don’t want to kill the Olympics,’ the athletes might say. ‘We just want to let the world know we are more than athletes — we have humanity. Our families and friends demand to be treated humanely.’

Thank you, IOC: Watching this summer’s Olympic games starting July 23 will be far more awesome. We will find out where there is gross injustice in the world. I found out in 2016 in Rio that a large tribe in Ethiopia was being killed and their land being taken by corrupt government officials. I learned that by a gesture after Feyisa Lilesa crossed the finish line, winning a silver medal.

I recently completed “Policing Black Athletes: Racial Disconnect in Sports,” a book where I documented the snuffing out of expression in American sport, namely football. Each time the athletes invented another way to express themselves, a new rule was invented. Whatever rules are put forth by the IOC as examples of what NOT to do, athletes will find an alternative way to express their fatigue with human rights abuses. We are no longer asking this planet to treat people of color humanely. We are demanding it. Athletes will make a way to have their voices heard, and social injustices echoed throughout living rooms and bars across America.

The Olympic rings and flag at the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee. (Fabrice Coffrini / AFP via Getty Images)

I was in a bar in Darling Harbor, Sydney, Australia, for part of the 2000 Olympic games. I watched Cathy Freeman, Aboriginal athlete, win the 400 meters gold and then run around the stadium with the flag of her indigenous nation. Badass. White people in the bar cried. I think they were tears of joy — or relief. They still live with the guilt of what they did to Aborigines (please watch , 2002, to better understand this horror).

There are many more statues to badass athletes/social activist heroes yet to be built. Those statues will be what is remembered of these times as the fungus that is racism rots in the 21st century. White Supremacy can no longer hide.

© 2021 by Dr. Vernon Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Andrews is an Oakland native and New Zealand citizen. His awesome new book is titled “Policing Black Athletes: Racial Disconnect in Sports” (NY: Peter Lang)

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