Tommie Smith and John Carlos | ESPY Arthur Ashe Award for Courage Special


In 2008 Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage for an event that occurred 40 years earlier and remains one of the most overt political statements in the 100-year-plus history of the modern Olympic Games. Both had run track and field at San Jose State and in 1967 during their time there, a professor in the department of Sociology, Harry Edwards, founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). It was the outgrowth of a protest against racial discrimination in sports that had been organized for the first day of classes. It was established as a protest group against apartheid in South Africa, racism in the United States and racism in sports in general. Many prominent black athletes, including Smith and Carlos, were members of the OPHR, which decided to organize a boycott of the 1968 Mexico City Summer Games. However, many black athletes were ambivalent about the OPHR boycott: they wanted to compete in the preeminent world event but also felt a responsibility to make a stand against the bad conditions that black athletes often faced compared to their white counterparts.

After the U.S. Olympic Trials, the OPHR’s boycott was cancelled due to inadequate support. However, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, both integral members of the OPHR, had qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team. In Mexico City, Smith finished first in the 200-meter dash, setting a new world record, while Carlos finished third. On the victory stand, they decided to each wear one black glove and, while the American National Anthem played, they each raised a gloved fist over their heads-the black power salute. Additionally, they wore no shoes, just black socks, to symbolize the poverty in black America. Subsequently, the IOC kicked them out of the Olympic Village and when they returned home, many Americans were upset with them as well; their families even received death threats. Both of them continued in athletics. Smith later played football with the Cincinnati Bengals before becoming an assistant professor at Oberlin and a U.S. National Team coach. Carlos played football for the Philadelphia Eagles before working as a community liaison for the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics.

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