On October 16, 1968, U.S. track and field runner John Carlos ascended the podium to accept his bronze medal following the 200m race. His teammate and gold medal winner Tommie Smith joined him on the podium and as the United States anthem played in the stadium, the pair raised their fists in solidarity with the growing movement for civil rights in America. Silver medal winner and Australian native Peter Norman (1942-2006) showed his support for the American duo by wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge. The image of them standing with their fists raised remains one of the most powerful pictures of the Civil Rights Movement. However, behind the scenes, the fallout from their gesture was immense and even Norman, who was not American, suffered tremendously. This is the story of John Carlos in his words, which explains the events leading up to the pivotal moment in world history and his life which has been anything but ordinary.
Huey P. Newtown (1942-1989) famously remarked that “the first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is a doomed man“. The statement is dark but accurate. For John Carlos, the moment he decided to raise his fist was also the moment that he invited the turmoil that comes with taking a public stand. But prior to that earth shattering moment, he had been an advocate for equality and the stage for Mexico had been set years prior in my hometown of New York City. I did not know Carlos was a New Yorker so one can expect that I was pleasantly surprised. As I read his account of his early life and the struggles his family faced in their housing complex, I found myself gaining more respect for him, as a person not afraid to tackle problems head on. To be fair, there are sections in the book where Carlos himself admits that he was wrong and should have put more thought into his actions. And his father, to whom he was remarkably close, provided a source of guidance that was needed at times. Carlos was also close to his mother, whom he deeply loved and still holds in high regard. I enjoyed reading about his family life and felt that I understood him and why he became a voice for change.
Carlos dabbles in athletics until he finds his calling in running, which incredibly, was not his first choice. That might shock readers, I know it surprised me. But once he starts running, he never stopped, and that path took him from New York City, to Texas, and all the way to Mexico City, where the story picks up in pace for obvious reasons. However, Carlos reveals critical information about the Olympic Project for Human Rights and its original plan for the games. Also, the story takes another turn when famed Olympian Jesse Owens (1913-1980) enters the story. I had no prior knowledge of these events before reading the book and was shocked to learn of the friction backstage. But Owens is not the villain, and his own story is one of triumph and tragedy. And even Carlos realizes that Owens could not escape the ideology that he helped shatter in Berlin as Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) watched in disbelief.
After the Olympic medal ceremony, Carlos knew that he would have to return to the United States but had no idea of how bad the repercussions would be for exposing America on the world stage. Any illusions of returning to America as champion of equality were quickly shattered as he and Tommie Smith became public enemies. Peter Norman also had to face his fate upon returning to Australia. His story is equally heartbreaking but on a positive note, Norman was vindicated in recent years and today he is seen as a hero and in 2012, Australia’s governing body posthumously apologized to him for not being sent to the 1972 Munich Olympics, despite qualifying. The hardships these athletes endured were surreal and it should come as no surprise that Norman’s final years were filled with dark days. Smith and Carlos had their own trials and tribulations. As the book progresses, Carlos reveals his personal struggles with employment, marriage, injury, fatherhood, and the social pressures that came because of being a recognized activist. But there are bright moments and though he was down on occasion he was never out. Thankfully, Carlos is alive today and has overcome challenging times that could have caused another man to lose the plot.
Whether we believe that athletes should make political statements, his story is important and an example of what happens when you take a stand for something you believe in. Carlos himself is aware of the criticism that athletes face when taking on politics but never wavered in his goal to make change. The argument over when and where to make political statements will never end but there are times where they need to be made regardless of who the speaker is. In 1968, John Carlos knew he and Tommie Smith were the ones to make their statement, but they could have never imagined that their actions before a sellout crowd in Mexico City would change the course of history.
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