The former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. A few months later, at the urging of then-President Jimmy Carter and the Congress, the U.S. Olympic Committee boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Four years later, the Soviet Union retaliated by barring its athletes from competing in the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. (In an ironic twist of history, Afghanistan sent athletes to the 1980 Games — but boycotted the 1984 Games.)
As a young child at the time, I didn’t comprehend the complex geopolitical machinations that prompted the boycotts. I did, however, understand that Americans supported our Olympic athletes no matter what. Sort of. OK, not really.
Years later, I learned the history behind the iconic “Black Power” salute that Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. (Interestingly, the other man on the podium that day, Australia’s Peter Norman, joined the Americans in wearing a human rights badge on his uniform.) Smith and Carlos were forced to leave the Olympic village. They were also vilified in their home country by the media and by most white Americans.
Even the International Olympic Committee, which was headed by an American, took umbrage. A statement from the IOC said that the action that the athletes took was “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit” (emphasis added). It goes without saying that the violence against which the two men protested was … actual violence.
Smith summarized the controversy perfectly when he said, “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.” In the wake of Dr. King’s assassination just six months earlier, Black America very much understood what Smith and Carlos did.
It is nearly impossible to separate race from the equation even when it is less obvious. For example, the legendary Carl Lewis was heavily criticized for — get this — running around the track with a U.S. flag after winning the 100-meter race at the Olympics. Yes, this actually happened in 1984. (Remember, that was the year that the former Soviet Union boycotted the Games, so “nationalism” was at a fever pitch.)
Several other Olympic athletes had done so, including Caitlyn Jenner, who won the Olympic decathlon (as Bruce Jenner) in 1976. Admittedly, Lewis wasn’t the most likable sports star. Still, he was lambasted for being a patriotic American. At the Olympics. In America.
Given this background, there is little surprise that Gwen Berry (whom I referenced in a prior column), the U.S. women’s soccer team and the U.S. men’s basketball team — among other current Olympians — have been targets of heavy criticism from right-wing Americans. (Many of these “patriots” find common cause with the Jan. 6 insurrectionists.) The athletes’ “crime” is that they have expressed solidarity with marginalized people.
I began to ponder why so many people are so upset. I mean, how does someone who calls himself or herself an American vociferously root against Americans who are competing on behalf of their country? Can you imagine what the reaction would have been if, for example, Blacks had rooted against the “miracle on ice” U.S. hockey team in 1980 — for any reason whatsoever?
Critics argue that there should be no politics during the Olympics. Yet, no one who knows the history of the modern Games (which most people agree began in Greece in 1896) would argue that they have been free from politics. Not in 1896. Not in 1936. Not in 1972. Not in 2008. Not even when the Games were canceled in 1916, 1940 and 1944. (Incidentally, Australia, Britain, France and Greece are the only countries to have participated in every Olympics since 1896.)
Further, it is cynical and immoral to castigate those who stand up — or take a knee — for others. One does not (or, at least, should not) shed one’s humanity when one puts on an Olympic uniform. These athletes are not decrying American ideals. On the contrary, they are demonstrating the highest regard for the ideals that most Americans profess. Indeed, these brave athletes are protesting the denial of the full fruits of being an American to some of our citizens. Their compassion is worth its weight in gold.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at email@example.com.