As the 2000 Olympic Games wind down, it is an ideal moment to reflect on the history of this monumental event. For over one hundred years, these international contests have captured the world's imagination and provided lasting memories. Moreover, the Olympics have not just been about athletic competition; they have provided a pivotal forum for social change and political expression. And embedded in these expressions have been powerful messages for all humanity. For example, Jesse Owens' four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics shredded Hitler's theories of Aryan supremacy. It also defined the beginning of an era of black athletic prominence in track and field and other sports, which played a notable role in the civil rights movement. Olympic politics have also created their share of negative consequences. The murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich games was an appalling tragedy. The 1980 U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics and the Soviet payback four years later in Los Angeles robbed many athletes of Olympic memories that never came to bear. But the most significant moment in Olympic history was not about winning medals or breaking world records; it was about two athletes who did both of these and then used their acclaim to deliver a message to the world. During the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City, American Tommie Smith won the gold medal in the 200-meter dash, breaking the world record. His teammate, John Carlos, took the bronze. Unlike the 1980 and 1984 boycotts, politics didn't affect the outcome of this race. But what these two African-American athletes did during the medal ceremony shocked the world and created an image that we will never forget. As the U.S. national anthem played for Smith's victory, the two athletes adorned black gloves, Smith on his right hand and Carlos on his left, and raised their fists in a Black Power salute. They bowed their heads in shame of American racism, and stood barefoot on the medal platform to symbolize the poverty of black America. No picture in Olympic history resonates more powerfully than this 1968 protest. Smith and Carlos, along with their message, are indelibly etched in the minds of millions. Their actions made headline news across the entire planet. And they took their stand without compromising athletic competition, instead using their victory to make a statement. Rather than erasing another Olympic memory, Smith and Carlos provided us with perhaps the most poignant Olympic memory of all. Both were immediately kicked off the Olympic team and vilified in the press. Despite their victories, they lost numerous opportunities for endorsements and profit. Already poor -- they only had one pair of gloves to share in their protest -- Smith and Carlos suffered immensely for their actions. But history has upheld their statement and, looking back, we realize the significance of their act and why it was so despised at the time. America was not ready for their message of black power. In fact, America still does not realize that black power is not just about civil rights, affirmative action or even monetary reparations. Black power is about ensuring that blacks gain control over their own political and economic destinies. And this is one step that America has not been willing to consider. Ultimately, the empowerment of black people will not come about through athletics, but through education and political activism. Although stereotypes of black physical prowess and aggression are primarily used to perpetuate racial fear, the most forceful weapons against the oppression of black people are educated and politically active black men and women who are committed to their own empowerment. Nonetheless, athletics can provide a powerful medium to help people reach this end. Athletic scholarships provide opportunities for many young blacks to gain an education, and as Smith and Carlos demonstrated, sports can bring world attention to social wrongs. And I hope that today -- in an era when athletes garner much more media attention than they did in 1968 -- black athletes will look not only to emulate Michael Johnson or Marion Jones, but also to follow in the footsteps of Tommie Smith and John Carlos.Comments powered by Disqus
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