I absolutely love the Summer Olympics. Growing up, I ran, jumped and played, emulating some of my favorite American Olympians of the era such as Carl Lewis, “Sugar” Ray Leonard, Michael Jordan, Edwin Moses and Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
For those reasons alone, I am glued to the television every four years to watch the best in the world reach unthinkable heights. This year, however, I have an additional reason to watch the 2020 Summer Olympics taking place in Tokyo, Japan — I want to see these great athletes use the Games to express themselves around issues of social and political justice.
Earlier this month, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) eased its longstanding ban on all athlete protest inside the Games field of play. Gestures are now allowed before races and games start, on the field, and at the start line. Political gestures are still not allowed on the medal stand. Observers see athletes and the IOC eventually heading to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to debate Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which bans any kind of “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda.”
Soccer (football) players from the United States, Great Britain and Sweden have knelt down on their knees to protest racism so far during these Games. FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, has had a relaxed view on taking a knee since players were inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement last year. It has been encouraging to see the international response to racism in the United States with athletes honoring the gesture that got quarterback Colin Kaepernick blackballed from the NFL.
These early protests have set off a familiar response by many.
Right-wing commentator Laura Ingraham went on one of her “shut up and dribble” rants — longing for the “Olympics of old” where American Olympians just collected medals and didn’t use the international stage of the Games to express themselves.
Ingraham, and others agreeing with her, need a history lesson about how the Olympics has served as a catalyst for social activism that changed the world for the better.
As a young person growing up in my parents’ home in Sacramento, Olympians who used their voice for change were not vilified as they were by a majority of Americans. They were considered American heroes. Athletes such as Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were household names. Even countries that boycotted the Games over issues such as apartheid or the United States boycotting the 1980 Games (and Russia doing the same in 1984) during the Cold War was celebrated.
The Olympics is a global event and provides an opportunity for the seeds of change to be planted. To take a line from H. Rap Brown when describing American violence, in my mind, the Olympics and protests go together — they are “as American as cherry pie.”
Eighty-five years ago, Jesse Owens became an international icon after dominating the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. Owens isn’t revered just because he won four gold medals; he is considered one of the greatest athletes in history because he accomplished the feat in the face of white supremacist Adolph Hitler. Owens’ victories on the global stage, put Hitler on notice that there was no such thing as Aryan superiority — years before Nazi Germany would be defeated in World War II.
Muhammad Ali was on the right side of history when he became a “conscientious objector” for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. Years before, Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, who won gold in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy threw his gold medal in the Ohio River after he was refused service in a Louisville restaurant because of the color of his skin.
Ali’s reaction to the response he was given as an Olympic champion signaled a sea change for African American athletes. Perhaps, it was after seeing even the great Jesse Owens disrespected by America — at times even having to race against horses for a pay day — that Ali began to develop a powerful voice that spoke up about the atrocities committed against Blacks by their own country.
That voice would fuel a generation.
Never was that more evident than at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico. Buoyed by Ali’s call for racial justice, members of the San Jose State University men’s track team — among them Tommie Smith and Lee Evans, along with their sociology professor, Harry Edwards — had been organizing a Black boycott of the Games for about a year called the “Olympic Project for Human Rights.” Frustration for many on the SJSU team was born out of the racist housing practices they faced around the South Bay campus.
While the boycott didn’t happen, Lew Alcindor (who would eventually change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) did boycott the Olympics, using his voice as the greatest college basketball player of the day and number one NBA draft pick, to stand up against racism.
Smith and John Carlos would go on to perform their iconic gesture on the medal stand after finishing first and third in the 200-meter race. Their simple, black-gloved, raised fists during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner would get the two removed from the Games by IOC’s Avery Brundage — who allegedly called the gesture a “nasty demonstration… by negros.” Evans, the gold medal winner in the 400 meters and the mile relay, wore a black beret on the medal stand in solidarity. Smith, Carlos, Evans and others would later receive death threats by their “fellow countrymen” for their actions.
Nations have also used the Olympics as a platform for change. Most notably, more than 30, mostly African nations boycotted the 1976 Olympics in response to the participation of New Zealand’s rugby team in the Games. New Zealand had permitted sports relations with South Africa despite the nation’s continued racial segregation policy of apartheid. Parts of the world had begun to see the cruelty occurring in South Africa — particularly after the Soweto uprising just weeks before the Olympics.
The 1976 Olympic boycott served as a key moment in the fight against racial segregation and discrimination in South Africa, forcing the word “apartheid” to be on the front page of nearly every newspaper in the world. South African apartheid would come to an end in 1994.
David Grevemberg from the Geneva-based Centre for Sport and Human Rights, calls this global moment “a crossroads for all sport.” Today’s athletes and nations are recognizing anti-Black racism and the centuries-long oppression of Black people around the world and are no longer going to sit idly by. Athletes from the WNBA, NBA, professional tennis and more have united in the chorus of racial justice and equity. The Olympic Games offers a powerful megaphone for athletes such as Gwen Berry, Noah Lyles and others to join in and let their voices be heard.
Track and field competitions, my favorite part, begin July 30. So while Brundage is rolling over in his grave and Ingraham is doing whatever it is she does, I will be cheering to see greatness be great — both on the field of play and off it.
Larry Lee is the publisher of the Sacramento Observer.