One of the most iconic images to come out of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City is of the moment when two young African-American athletes -- gold medal-winner Tommie Smith and bronze medal-winner John Carlos -- took the stand and, in a gesture that would become a symbol of black struggle, lowered their heads and raised high their clenched, black-gloved fists.
But often lost in the nostalgia of that moment for many is the fact that Smith shattered the 200-meter world record to take the gold -- and the hostile tenor of the mainstream press coverage following Smith and Carlos' nonviolent protest in solidarity with the black fight for equality.
While their singular act on the stand garnered some international acclaim, they were labeled traitors by many of their countrymen and denounced by the U.S. Olympic committee as embarrassments.
But perhaps one of the most jarring condemnations at the time came from a columnist named Brent Musburger, who would go on to become one of the most respected and recognizable voices in television sports broadcasting.
Musburger called the athletes "ignoble" and "unimaginative." He called them "juvenile." But in perhaps the strangest, most searing judgment of the men, Mustberger compared the pair to Nazi soldiers.
"Smith and Carlos looked like a couple of black-skinned storm troopers," Musburger wrote in a 1968 column, which appeared in the Chicago American newspaper.
While history has managed to place Smith and Carlos' protest in context and perspective, with America then embroiled in culture and race clashes at home and the Vietnam War abroad, 44 years later Musberger has still not apologized for his comment.
David Zirin this week wrote about Musberger's comments in The Nation:
It's been forty-four years. It's time Brent Musburger apologized for slandering these two young men as "black-skinned stormtroopers." It's time he apologized for his absence of journalistic ethics in ignoring their message and instead obsessing on the color of their skin. It's time he apologized for making the lives of John Carlos and Tommie Smith that much harder. Nearing the end of a distinguished career, he should address this scar on his legacy. Brent Musburger: the ball is in your court.
Zirin writes that Carlos is still angry about the comments, saying that the mere mention of Musberger’s name causes him to grit his teeth.
"We are talking about someone who compared us to Nazis. Think about that. Here we are standing up to apartheid and to a man in Avery Brundage (President of the International Olympic Committee) who delivered the Olympics to Hitler's Germany. And here's Musburger calling us Nazis," Carlos told Zirin. "That got around. It followed us. It hurt us. It hurt my wife, my kids. I've never been able to confront him about why he did this. Every time I've been at a function or an event with Brent Musburger and I walk towards him, he heads the other way."
Back in 1968, when Smith and Carlos took the stand before 60,000 people and countless spectators watching on television across the world, there were cheers as well as boos. Some even gestured with their thumbs down, "like a crowd at a bullfight," read one report from the St. Petersberg Times.
"They look upon us as nothing but animals -- low animals, roaches and ants," Carlos told reporters during a press conference at the time. "We are sort of showhorses out there for the white people. They give us peanuts, pat us on the back and say, 'Well, boy, you did fine.'"
During the press conference, Carlos turned to his wife and handed her his medal. "This is yours," he said, according to reports, "I do not want it."
A day or so later Everett Barnes, acting director of the U.S. Olympic Committee, told a reporter with Canada's The Sun newspaper that the two athletes' protest on the stand -- black gloves to symbolize black unity, black socks to represent poverty and lowered heads during the national anthem -- "made the country look like the devil."
"I was embarrassed," Barnes was quoted as saying. "All of us were embarrassed."
But as Zirin notes, the gesture is more often celebrated than criticized, with posters made of photographs taken that day hanging in any number of dorm rooms and teenage bedrooms. In 2008, ESPN awarded Carlos and Smith their Arthur Ashe Courage Award, saying, "They were right."
Zirin article continues:
No one asked why two young, world-class athletes would risk their livelihoods, their reputations, even the safety of themselves and their families in the name of protest. Few were interested in examining why anyone would feel compelled to challenge an International Olympic Committee that coddled apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, didn't hire black officials or would be led by an avowed white supremacist and anti-Semite, Avery Brundage. It was easier to dismiss Carlos and Smith and misguided souls and be done with them…
Zirin's article, published on Wednesday, also includes Musberger's column in full.
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