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Olympics and Oppression

Olympics and Oppression

By Lorena O'Neil



History has a tendency to repeat itself. With the controversial Olympics in Russia around the corner, we can learn a lesson from a past Olympics protest.

By Lorena O'Neil

Politics and the Olympics do not always make the best bedfellows. The upcoming 2014 Olympics in Sochi have prompted international debates about whether LGBT athletes and allies should boycott the Games to protest Russia’s strict anti-gay laws.

A boycott is not looking likely, but LGBT rights organizations and supporters are looking for other ways to protest. An added challenge came when Vladimir Putin preemptively banned protests in Sochi from January 7 to March 21. So, what’s next? Should athletes who wish to compete but also make a statement wear rainbow pins? Should out athletes like speed skater Blake Skjellerup make some sort of salute from the podium if they win a medal?

What are the potential repercussions for those who wish to speak out against Russia’s anti-gay laws and treatment of LGBT citizens?

One lesson can be learned by looking at history. On January 17, 1968, in New York City, sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards met with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Louis Lomax, an African-American journalist. Lomax had arranged the meeting with Edwards and King to discuss what kind of protest the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) would carry out at the upcoming Olympics. Edwards had created the OPHR to protest racial inequality in the United States and abroad.

Mexico’s own student movement was cut short when, in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Plaza just 10 days before the Olympic opening ceremony, police and military shot at unarmed demonstrators protesting government repression, killing as many as 3,000. Casualties remain disputed to this day.

Edwards was a professor at San Jose State College, which African American Olympic contenders Tommie Smith and John Carlos attended. Smith had joined the OPHR and he, Edwards and other athletes tried to organize a boycott of the Games. When the boycott didn’t work out due to lack of willing participants, they had backup plans.“Since the march on Washington, 12 civil rights leaders had been murdered, along with three little girls in a church in Birmingham,” said Edwards. “We were looking at a situation of intolerable interim, of suppression, oppression, murder and so forth, which we felt compelled to deal with, as opposed to seeing sport as outside of the realm of legitmate political protest and concern.” 

Edwards said he discussed the range of possible Olympic protest scenarios with King. “The only constraints that came out of that meeting were that the protest had to be nonviolent, that it had to be respectful of other Olympians – especially those who disagreed with the goals and methods of the OPHR – and that the athletes protesting had to be safe.”

Ten months later, on October 16, 1968, Smith and Carlos won Olympic gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter race in Mexico City. They stood on the victory podium and each raised a black-gloved fist, heads bowed, as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played. Many would call this a Black Power salute, although Smith later said it was a salute for all human rights. Peter Norman, the Australian athlete who had won silver, stood next to Smith and Carlos, wearing an OPHR badge in solidarity.

They wore black socks, without shoes, to represent black poverty. Carlos wore black beads to symbolize the victims of lynchings. 

The negative reaction was almost instantaneous. The audience booed the athletes as they left the podium, and Smith and Carlos raised their fists again. International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Avery Brundage promptly banned Smith and Carlos from the Olympic Village. An IOC spokesperson called the salutes “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.”


Source Getty

When the athletes returned home, they were met with animosity in the mainstream media. Time put the Olympic logo on the cover with the words “Angrier, Nastier, Uglier” replacing the “Faster, Higher, Stronger” motto. The Chicago Tribune  called the salutes “an insult to their countrymen,” and the Los Angeles Times described the salutes as “Nazi-like.” Norman was greeted with anger by Australians when he came back from Mexico City. Edwards was fired from San Jose State College and said he was placed on the FBI’s list of subversive revolutionaries. Carlos and Smith received death threats against them and their families. Although some news reports said they were stripped of their medals, Carlos, in an ESPN fan chat, said this was false propoganda used to deter people from protesting in the future.

Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral in 2006. “Many people in Australia didn’t particularly understand. Why would that young white fella go over and stand with those black individuals?” said Carlos.

When asked if he would have done anything differently, despite the harsh response by the American public, Edwards said, “Absolutely not.” He said of the civil rights battles in the ’60s, “Some of us never believed that we would get through the 1960s alive, so we had nothing to lose except the battle to bring about greater equality and freedom and justice for all people.”

Edwards said that LGBT athletes and allies in the 2014 Olympics who choose to protest will be “in much better shape imagewise and jobwise” than Smith and Carlos were following their actions. He said the protests are not parallel, since Smith and Carlos were protesting a grave injustice in their own country, rather than laws in a country not their own. However, he does advise people planning protests to be prepared. “I think that one who intends to demonstrate on what is the second most political international forum outside of the United Nations itself should be able to pay whatever consequence that they can imagine.”


Tommie Smith and John Carlos

LGBT rights organizations are looking to the IOC for guidance on what comes next. Brian Healey, a program coordinator for Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization aiming to end homophobia in sports, said, ”I don’t think we’ve heard the right answer in terms of what athletes themselves can do. Sochi is going to become this big actionable moment for LGBT inclusion in sports, and so much more than that because it’s drawing attention to these horrible, destructive human rights issues in Russia that goes so much farther than sports.” He also cautioned about the lack of security that demonstrators may encounter in Russia. ”I doubt seriously that you will have the full protection of the Russian authorities should this thing develop. …At the end of it all, the athletes determined to demonstrate, they may have to be ready for anything and everything.”

The IOC’s Rule 50 bans “political, religous or racial propaganda,” and it is unclear whether athletes wearing rainbow pins or other rainbow paraphernalia will be punished. Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro sported rainbow-colored nails at track’s world championships in Russia and was asked to change her polish. An IOC spokesperson recently told BuzzFeed that Rule 50 has “seldom if ever been ‘enforced’ with a ban, expulsion or similar.” She added, “Again, the IOC will always take a sensible approach when dealing with potential actions and always act on a case-by-case basis. What happens in reality is that we often start by having an informal conversation with the athletes concerned, who in most cases understand the spirit of the rule and the reason for having it.”

But do the Olympic Games ever really lack politics? John Carlos does not seem to think so. In a past interview with PBS he said, “If you look at the Olympic Games as a whole, if we would say we didn’t want to interject politics into the games, then why are we using nations’ flags? Why don’t we use one Olympic flag to encompass all the Olympians, as opposed to being separatists in terms of China versus Russia or Russia versus the United States? Why don’t we just say man versus man?”

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