Commentary

Carlos still has a conscience, 40 years after Mexico City

Updated: May 10, 2008, 1:11 AM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

John Carlos didn't keep the glove that covered his clenched left fist 40 years ago. He says he isn't sure where it is these days. Probably still with the original owner -- Tommie Smith.

Anyway, it isn't the borrowed black glove that matters, but the nerve and absolute courage -- yeah, courage -- it took to raise that fist on an Olympic medal stand in Mexico City in the early autumn of 1968.

[+] EnlargeJohn Carlos
AP PhotoJohn Carlos when he tied the world record in the 100-yard dash as a San Jose State student in 1969.

That was the year Martin Luther King was assassinated on the balcony of a Memphis motel called the Lorraine. The year a Mexican bus boy gently touched the shoulder of a just-slain Bobby Kennedy. The year that great American cities crackled and burned as hate and anger and hopelessness morphed into violence.

So Carlos and Smith raised their fists in protest of racial inequality. They defied Avery Brundage, the de facto dictator of the International Olympic Committee. They took their place on a stand so they could make a stand.

"The only people who knew we were going to do it were Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Jesus Christ," says Carlos, a high school guidance counselor in Palm Springs, Calif.

Carlos is watching with interest as the Beijing Games, already dipped in controversy like roast beef au jus, lurch toward the August opening ceremonies. At issue is China's human-rights scorecard in such faraway places as Darfur and Tibet.

Most Americans would need a Garmin and a geography instructor to find Darfur and Tibet on a map. I did. I'm guessing the same goes for most American athletes who will compete in these Games.

"You're right, most people wouldn't be able to tell you," Carlos says. "But if I told them about the genocide [in Darfur] and asked if they thought that was right, then that's the answer I'd have to live with."

All politics are local, which is why Carlos couldn't help but notice the IOC's recent attempts to tamp any threat of anti-China protest by the world's athletes. An IOC letter, sent to each country's national Olympic committee, is as subtle as a javelin to the gut.

No on-site "political, religious or racial propaganda." No "external appearance, clothing, gestures and written or oral statements" that bring attention to the so-called propaganda.

In short, says the IOC, speak out if you must, but just don't do a Carlos and Smith and pop off on a medal stand, or at poolside, or in the mixed-zone interview area. If it were up to the IOC and China, they'd prefer you keep your personal views to yourself or to your diary.

It's like a horse with blinders on. They don't want the horse to look to the right or look to the left. In essence, that's what the Chinese government wants with these athletes.

--John Carlos

"It's like a horse with blinders on," says Carlos, who turns 63 next month. "They don't want the horse to look to the right or look to the left. In essence, that's what the Chinese government wants with these athletes."

Like it or not, the Olympic Games have often been a cocktail of one part sport and one part politics, served to the world whether the world ordered the mixed drink or not. No IOC letter is going to change that.

Hitler's 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin ring a bell? Carlos and Smith in 1968? Terrorism at the Munich Games in 1972? A United States boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow? A Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles Games in 1984?

Carlos says he and other American black athletes seriously considered boycotting the Mexico City Games. "We went all the way down to the last drop, man," he says.

Instead, they decided to compete. Smith won the gold medal in the 200-meter dash, Carlos won the bronze. Moments before they left a holding room for the tunnel that led to the awards ceremony, Carlos asked Peter Norman, the silver medalist from Australia, "Do you believe in human rights?"

Norman said that of course he did; his parents had spent years working for the Salvation Army. That's when the list of those who knew of the impending protest -- Carlos, Smith and Jesus -- grew by one.

"He became my brother at that precise moment," Carlos says.

And brothers they would remain. When Norman died of a heart attack in 2006, Carlos and Smith served as pallbearers at the funeral.

Carlos has grown older, but his politics remain the same. Had he been issued an IOC letter in 1968 like the one issued last week, "I probably wouldn't have been at the Games." No organization or country, he says, has the jurisdiction to muzzle his freedom of speech.

Still, he doesn't favor an organized boycott of any Olympic Games because it leaves the athletes "splintered, wounded and scarred." But Carlos does see the value of a possible boycott of the opening ceremonies by USA athletes and/or officials.

"I think it says quite a bit," he says.

Does it? The U.S. borrows money from China. The U.S. buys China's goods. But now that the Beijing Games are here, we become the world's conscience? That argument had a few more teeth before evidence of torture emerged from Guantanamo Bay. Or from Philadelphia, where a Fox TV helicopter video showed police officers beating three suspects.

We are being hypocritical when we talk about someone else's civil rights issues. But an injustice is an injustice. We're no different than anyone else ... but I can't ignore what's happening there or here. How can I condone something like that?

--John Carlos

"We are being hypocritical when we talk about someone else's civil rights issues," Carlos says. "But an injustice is an injustice. We're no different than anyone else ... but I can't ignore what's happening there or here. How can I condone something like that?"

He's right -- you can't ignore it. That's why Beijing is connected to Mexico City, and why Carlos and Smith remain relevant 40 years later. A defying moment became a defining moment.

It was a raised fist and Black Power sign in 1968. What, if anything, will it be in 2008? A raised voice? A boycott of those opening ceremonies? Athletes in orange (a Danish organization is asking athletes to wear the color as a silent form of protest of China's human-rights record)?

"Demonstrations are statements," Carlos says. "They're publicized to wake people up around the world. I'm not hoping for [the athletes] to do anything other than what their morality and consciences tell them to do."

China's official slogan for these Games is, "One world, one dream." Carlos is here to remind us though that the world has more than one voice.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

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