Sunday, 20 May 2012

John Carlos: an alternative Olympic Flame arrives in London

Many remember the moment. Grainy black and white TV images from the Mexico City Olympics of 1968. US athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith stand on the medal winners' podium, heads bowed and raise their black-gloved fists in a defiant Black Power salute. 
 The stadium fell quiet. "You could've heard a frog piss on cotton," recalls Carlos. The boos followed. Then lifelong abuse and vilification for gold medallist Smith, bronze-winner Carlos and Peter Norman, the Australian silver medallist who wore a button supporting the protest. 
 This Olympic moment captured the wider momentum of 1968; the tumult year of Martin Luther King's assassination, the Vietnam War, the Prague Spring, revolutionary turmoil in France, apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, and Middle East conflict.
 John Carlos (below), speaking 44 years later to an audience packed into a Bloomsbury Street bookshop in central London yesterday evening (Saturday, 19 May), recalled not just 'the moment' but also the movement behind it - the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a movement representing a "counter-history" of the Olympics.
Before the 1968 Games, Carlos, Smith and the OPHR had called upon the International Olympic Committee to ban apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia from the Mexico City Olympiad. They also demanded IOC head Avery Brundage step down due to his support for these regimes and for delivering the 1936 Games to Hitler's Berlin.
 Carlos and Smith had decided if they won medals they'd wear black gloves as a symbol of their commitment to African-American struggles for civil rights and equality. They agreed not to wear shoes on the podium as a symbol of solidarity with many poverty-stricken African-American children in America's deep south who walked to school with no footwear.
 Carlos decided he'd breach strict Olympic protocol by wearing his team USA jacket wide open, a more subtle sign of solidarity with struggling black and white blue-collar working people in Harlem, his home New York neighbourhood. He would wear beads around his neck to symbolise the history of lynchings in America.
 Carlos recalls how he and Smith planned their protest but also how the whole enterprise hinged upon the not-so-small matter of them actually winning the 200 metres Olympic final.

Click on the link below to see how they fared...

To be continued...

Paul Coleman, London, May 2012

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