Even if you’re not the sporty type, most people enjoy watching the Olympics — mesmerised by breath-taking prowess and nail-biting moments. But the games have been a stage for another great human feat: the fight for justice and equality. The moving documentary Salute tells the straightforward story of the 1968 Mexico Olympics, when the Civil Rights movement seized the global spotlight.
Two Black Americans and one white Australian won the gold, silver and bronze medals for the 200-metre race. On the victory podium, as the Star Spangled Banner played, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in the Black Power salute. They stood shoe-less, symbolising the poverty of their brothers and sisters at home. Peter Norman, the Australian silver medalist, stood with them in solidarity — all three wearing Olympic Project Human Rights badges.
Protest punished. The Olympic Charter states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in the Olympic area.” These athletes broke the rules. The response to their protest was brutal and immediate. All three were sent home and vilified by the media. Smith couldn’t find work. Carlos’ two brothers were discharged from Vietnam. All had death threats against themselves and their families. The relentless persecution caused the death of Smith’s mother.
Norman returned to Australia, where he was on his own in a racist apartheid. The White Australia Policy, in place since 1901, imposed an immigration policy that favoured whites. Not until 1967 were Aboriginal people counted as part of the Australian population. Norman’s solidarity with the Black struggle made him a traitor, and the sporting industry ostracised him. He was not selected to run in the 1972 Olympics in Munich — although he ranked fifth in the world. He was not invited to attend the 2000 Olympics in Sydney in any official capacity — despite being the country’s best sprinter. His 1968 score still stands as Australia’s record.
This was neither the first time, nor the last for Olympic rebels. In 1936, Jesse Owens was the first U.S. track and field athlete to win four gold medals in a single Olympiad. He was Black, and this was the Berlin Olympics in Nazi Germany. This jaw-dropping accomplishment was a shattering blow to Aryan supremacy, and Hitler wasn’t pleased. On Owens’ return to his segregated homeland, his own president, Franklin Roosevelt, refused to shake the hand of a Black man.
In 1994, after winning the 400-metre race in the Commonwealth Games, Australia’s Cathy Freemen carried the Aboriginal flag in her victory lap. She was reprimanded and warned that she’d lose her medals if she did this again. She did it again in 2000 — and she kept her Gold medal.
In October 2006, Norman died from a heart attack at 64. His two Olympic comrades were pallbearers. The U.S. Track and Field Federation declared October 9 as Peter Norman Day. Six years later, the Australian government issued an apology to him.
A world on fire. The film opens with tumultuous global events from that time. From Vietnam to Africa, Uncle Sam was busy trying to stamp out anti-imperialist revolt. Cuba’s young revolution was a beacon for the oppressed throughout the world, including the United States. Resistance at home was raging. The Civil Rights movement, which Carlos and Smith were part of, was rocking the establishment. So was protest against sending young men, mainly poor and Black, to fight in Vietnam. Tommie Smith himself was discharged from the military for his “un-American activities.” Martin Luther King was assassinated. The Ku Klux Klan was lynching Blacks and terrorising their communities. Within the Civil Rights movement, there was strong opposition to participating in the Olympics. In marches, picket signs read, “Why run in Mexico & Crawl at home?” and “No Black Athletics for the Glory of White Bigots.”
Mexico was also erupting. Throughout the previous decade, the government was crushing the labour unions. Despite attempts by Mexican president Díaz Ordaz to suppress resistance, 500,000 took to the streets in August, saying, “We don’t want Olympics, we want revolution.”
In October, at a demonstration of 10,000 at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, the government killed hundreds of students and workers in what is now called the Tlatelolco Massacre, just 10 days before the ’68 Olympics opened.
Against this backdrop, Black athletes decided not to boycott the games. Instead, they put their politics on the Olympics stage for the world to see.
Rio, half a century later. History proves that resistance does not stop as long as oppression exists. Brazil, the site of the 2016 Olympics, is now engulfed in protest. Its ever-sprawling slums are one marker of grueling poverty, deepened by years of neoliberal economics. Black women — who feel its impact most — are leading a movement against the femicide, harassment, police violence, poverty and assault on abortion rights. This “Feminist Spring,” named after the Arab Spring, is planning marches of women to coincide with the Olympics. Brazil’s indigenous peoples are also organising protests to expose the violation of their lands and cultures by privateers.
The world is alight with resistance and rage — all connected by capitalism’s desperate measures to stay standing. In the film, Peter Norman poignantly explains the Black Power salute: fingers coming together in unity to form a powerful fist. This can also be our symbol for today, fists clenched together for the final blow — the revolution that Mexican protesters called for in 1968.
Salute is a film worth seeing, about history worth remembering, in an enduring struggle.
Jo Devlin is a child protection social worker and union member in Melbourne. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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