Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Mexican Standoff

In a way, the silly overreaction was like a precursor to Janet Jackson's nipple at the Super Bowl halftime show. Hardly anyone in the crowd at Mexico City even noticed that Tommie Smith and John Carlos had raised their gloved fists in a black power salute during their victory ceremony. Members of the press did and then so did Avery Brundage, the Nazi-loving, anti-Semitic, misogynistic head of the IOC.

41 years ago today, Brundage was so infuriated by Smith's and Carlos' understated demonstration that he revoked their credentials, forcing them to leave the Olympic village within 48 hours. The USOC suspended them. They should have left as victors, leaving with the rest of the team after the closing ceremonies that would've commemorated unprecedented American dominance in Olympic track and field. Instead, they were forced to skulk out as criminals.

The New York Times, that embattled, perennial liberal bastion of journalism, gave scant attention to Smith and Carlos' supporters and never even mentioned Peter Norman, the Australian sprinter who finished second in the event. Norman's show of support was even more understated: He wore an OPHR patch on his jacket, the symbol of the Olympic Human Rights organization. In fact, it was Norman who'd suggested that Smith and Carlos share the black leather gloves since Smith left his pair back at the Olympic Village.

The NY Times article, instead, gave the lion's share of its reportage to Brundage and the critics of the African American athletes on its below-the-fold front page story that was printed alongside another of Jackie O arriving at Aristotle Onassis' private island.

The fallout from Norman's quiet, understated support of the two Americans was so toxic that it cost the five time national champion his athletic career. Despite posting qualifying times in his events, Australia chose not to send him to the 1972 Olympic or any Australians, for that matter, partly because of Norman's opposition to his country's "White Australia" policies.

Considering the racial climate of the time, it's a miracle the pair weren't stripped of their medals like Brundage did Jim Thorpe's (after Thorpe had defeated Brundage in the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon).

Brundage's moral stance could easily be seen as hypocritical. He barred the only two Jewish athletes on the US track and field team in solidarity with host Nazi Germany in 1936 and replaced them with Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe. He'd publicly praised the Nazi Party in Madison Square Garden and the Nazi Party loved him back.

The press dropped the ball in 1968 just as unfailingly as they did in 1936. In calling attention to a quiet protest and raising such a big stink about it, they helped bring about a shameful chapter of Olympic reprisals without once considering the athletes could've been justified in their protest or if their careers could've been hurt. Or if the IOC's or USOC's sanctions against them could've been wrong.

In spite of all the gains made by African Americans since 1964, the backlash against Carlos and Smith was vicious, even extending to Australia and one of their more sympathetic athletes. Brundage's and the USOC's reaction was so swift and severe that any further demonstrations by medal-winning African Americans were either muted or abandoned. By emphasizing Olympic ideals and the non-politicization of the Games, all the ruling councils did was to do more to take away from the true spirit of the Games than Smith or Carlos ever would have.

Of course, posterity confidently informs us the excommunication of the pair of champions was disproportionate and unnecessarily harsh. Just over four years ago, San Jose State, Smith's and Carlos' alma mater, erected a statue honoring their gesture, one that would've perhaps been lost to history if it wasn't for the media's and IOC's hysterical overreaction.

And while the bylines and news anchors have almost completely changed, that same media continues a collective racist policy that much prefers to pay attention to minorities as long as they're the perpetrators and not the victims, that is all too eager to write endless stories about missing white college girls, white murder victims and white runaway brides while giving short shrift to black girls in identical predicaments.

We have arguably the most racist press in the known world, one that looks through things with a racist prism, albeit a bit more passively than Rush Limbaugh's prism. Our mainstream media by and large, barring a few liberal outposts, is collapsing under the weight of its own ignorance and sluggish response to a changing, more racially tolerant world.


At October 18, 2009 at 1:31 PM, Blogger Distributorcap said...

funny, i just wrote about how incredibly awful slavery avery was. and how ironic he is buried in chicago, the town that didnt get the olympics

the 1968 games were loaded with politicization - from Vera Caslavska sharing the podium with soviet athletes- a country that just invaded czechoslovakia, the massacre outside the olympics by the mexican police.

teh 68 games were a turning point in the olympics - opening a climate which i feel led to the tragedy four years later.

as always a great post

At October 18, 2009 at 2:25 PM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

That was a fucking travesty. Those two fellows are heroes. Whatever became of them? Did I hear a few years ago that Tommy had passed on?

Tom Degan

At October 19, 2009 at 4:25 PM, Blogger Stan B. said...

Recently read both of these very underrated, undervalued heroes were very much alive and well. Can you imagine any of today's young multi-millionaire athletes making such a heroic and totally self sacrificing stance for what's right?

At October 19, 2009 at 7:13 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

What, and queer a multimillion dollar Nike deal?

I hate Avery Brundage for the ultimate Republican asshat that he was but he was onto something when he said the Games should remain all amateur. Now, what's considered amateur is a fucking joke. I mean, the NBA Dream Team, which lately has an infinitely worse track record than the college athletes we were using up until 1992.

At October 20, 2009 at 2:28 AM, Blogger Stan B. said...

Much thanks for the Avery Brundage tutorial- knew nothing of the man. And yeah, it was kinda cool back in the day knowing we were relative underdogs going into something... That hockey win over the Russians was perhaps the greatest upset in sports' history!

At October 20, 2009 at 2:30 PM, Anonymous GregM said...

A great new German film coming out now titled "Berlin 36" features Avery Brundage's anti-Semitism and support of the Nazis during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. An excellent movie that should get an Academy Award

At October 20, 2009 at 2:33 PM, Blogger LanceThruster said...

Especially considering just how benign and low-key their statement was, they were truly subjected to a high-tech lynching (i.e. pilloried and punished for displaying non-approved sentiments - as if they had whistled at a white woman).

Whenever the media has their periodic orgies of self-congratulations, they so very often leave out those instances where they were clearly on the wrong side of history (just like their coverage on everything else).


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